LIMA, Peru — Since the Peruvian judiciary began to make public hundreds of videos showing how a large number of Peru's who's who were bribed by disgraced ex-president Alberto Fujimori's former top adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, watching TV has become the country's main pastime.

But it's a pastime with a hefty political price: The credibility of so many personalities and institutions has been shattered that the Catholic Church has moved to curb the “videomania” caused by the continuing disclosures on Peruvian television.

Recently, speaking about the careless way some media have been speculating about “who will be next” in the “Vladi-videos,” Cardinal-designate Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne said, “Any speculation aimed, willingly or not, to affect the dignity and good name of persons, is a crime.”

The archbishop of Lima especially criticized the media for trying to discredit interim President Valentín Paniagua and Congress Speaker Carlos Ferrero, “who are now involved in a delicate process of restoring full democracy and bringing morality to the nation,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Cipriani said Jan. 25 that freedom of press “should not be confused with irresponsible mud-throwing.”

At present, only a few of the 2,400 videos clandestinely taped by ex-spy chief Montesinos and his allies — many apparently showing lawmakers and judges accepting bribes, favors or engaging in other incriminating acts — have come to light.

Montesinos fled the country in October after a video showing him bribing a congressman set off a scandal that toppled Fujimori. Montesinos' current location is unknown.

Fujimori, who was declared “morally unfit” for office by Congress in November, is in exile in Japan. New elections for president and Congress are slated for April 8.

Judge Saul PeÒa, who is overseeing the Montesinos case in the judiciary, said 70 of the 700 most important tapes have been reviewed, and that at least 20 contain incriminating evidence against politicians, judges, businessmen, bankers, police and military officers.

So far, the tapes have led to criminal investigations of the former president of the Electoral Jury and three Supreme Court judges, as well as mayors and congressmen, including one with a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader.

After rumors spread that some videos have disappeared and that key personalities had frantically tried to buy tapes involving them, Special Prosecutor José Ugaz asked the president of the Supreme Court to copy all of the videos and put them in the safe of the National Bank of Peru.

Meanwhile, President Paniagua has urged Congress and the courts to take whatever steps necessary to finish reviewing the videos and make them public before the April 8 general elections.

Among those involved in the “Vladi-videos” scandal is José Francisco Crousillat, owner of one of Peru's most powerful TV broadcasters, “América TelevisiÛn.” On Jan. 28, Nicolás Lucar , Crousillat's son-in-law and director of América TelevisiÛn's political program “Tiempo Nuevo,” aired an interview in which an alleged former Montesinos bodyguard claimed that Paniagua had received campaign funds from Montesinos' front man, Alberto Venero, when he ran for Congress.

The interview, in which the journalist oriented his questions to challenge Paniagua's image as an honest and incorruptible Catholic politician, sparked a wave of protests that forced Lucar to resign and then flee to Costa Rica.

Two days later, Venero, captured by FBI agents in Miami on money-laundering charges, denied ever having any relationship with Paniagua.

In a televised speech to the nation, Paniagua denounced a “conspiracy against his government” and said his Cabinet was “united in its fight against those trying to destabilize the process of democratization under way in Peru.”

Paniagua, who will hand over power on July 28 to the winner of the April presidential election, told Peruvians that nothing would prevent Peru from “overcoming this stage of corruption.”

The daily newspaper La Republica, traditionally opposed to Paniagua's political party, defended him in a Jan. 27 editorial that said “the Montesinos Mafia is still in action, because even on the run, Montesinos is still pulling strings from afar.”

Added the editorial, “They [Montesinos and his allies] are trying to make Peruvians believe that everybody is corrupted, and therefore, that the government should stop the cleansing process.”

In response to the situation, the Peruvian bishops' conference, in an unprecedented move, expressed its “firm and unconditional support” to

Paniagua. A delegation of bishops, including Cardinal-designate Cipriani, visited the president at the Pizarro Palace Jan. 26 to further emphasize their solidarity.

The bishops also released a letter stating that “the morally unbearable situation affecting our people moves us, as shepherds, to reaffirm our confidence in God, as well as in the support our people are expressing to the current presidency.”

Added the bishops. “We also want to demand, in this dramatic hour of our nation, a full respect for the dignity of the persons and the institutions they represent, who are seeking to bring the country back to moral values, democracy and justice.”

The bishops concluded by requesting the media “to help instead of obstructing the process of moral recovery for which our people is longing.”

Archbishop Cipriani has also proposed that Congress create a “Commission of Honor,” headed by a respected Peruvian, to oversee how the remaining “Vladi-videos” are handled and made public. “Freedom of the press must always be protected and preserved, but moral blackmail must be avoided also at any cost,” the cardinal-designate said.

But restoring faith in Peru's political institutions will not be easy. “Hundreds of [Montesinos'] cronies are still in the armed forces, police, judiciary, customs, tax offices, ministries and Congress,” Congresswoman Mercedes Cabanillas said at a press conference.

Cabanillas said the Catholic Church was the only institution not affected by Montesinos' ring of corruption. Consequently, she suggested the bishops themselves head the Commission of Honor proposed by Archbishop Cipriani.

Special Prosecutor Ugaz told the Register that a special commission will study the videos and set apart all incriminating evidence by Feb. 20 for review. After that, he said, “A Commission of Honor, to balance the right to privacy and the right of the people to know who is who before the elections, will certainly be needed.”

Alejandro Berm?dez is based in Lima, Peru

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