"Look at me," said Julio Sotelo, former manager of a crusading television station in Lima, over the hum of his respirator in the intensive care ward of a clinic guarded by armed policemen. "I am part of the proof that free speech is disappearing in my country."

The infirm 48-year-old, transferred from his prison cell to a sick bed because of heart and respiratory problems, was arrested last month and sentenced to four years in jail. He was convicted of falsifying a business document, but Sotelo and leading free speech advocates have another theory--that his arrest stems from his station's ground-breaking reports alleging corruption, torture and murder by President Alberto Fujimori's intelligence service.

After the reports were broadcast, the station's owner, Baruch Ivcher, was stripped of his citizenship and forced into exile. Peruvian authorities also have issued arrest warrants for Ivcher's wife and two daughters. Sotelo said he and former journalists from the station are still receiving death threats.

"Mr. Fujimori will stop at nothing to keep us quiet," Sotelo said. "And he's doing a good job."

The Ivcher case--or the story of how the Peruvian government blocked investigative reporting at Frecuencia Latina, Channel 2--is being cited by Fujimori's critics as a prime example of a campaign of intimidation and harassment of journalists in Peru.

The campaign--including the alleged use of judicial pressure, smear tactics, threats, bribes and wiretaps--has led to the ranking of this Andean nation for the first time alongside Cuba as the greatest offenders of press freedoms in the Americas, according to Freedom House and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Two weeks ago, a U.S. congressional subcommittee condemned Peru for what the panel called repression of journalists.

Rather than censor the media outright, critics say, Fujimori and his intelligence service have manipulated Peru's democratic system, especially the judiciary. The concentration of power in the executive branch in such nations as Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia has created what many in South America call a new breed of "democratic dictators," elected presidents who run roughshod over other national institutions, such as the legislature, the courts and the media.

Presidents often use such power to stay in office by stifling press investigations into corruption and by limiting the power of political opponents. For example, Fujimori strengthened his grip on Congress when he combined the lower and upper houses into one after dissolving the legislature in 1992 during his push against anti-government guerrilla movements. The reorganized Congress helped him force through a measure last week that forbids a potential political rival, former president Alan Garcia, from running for the presidency next year.

On the same night, Peru withdrew from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a legal body of the Organization of American States that was a final hope for people like Ivcher and Sotelo. The court is also set to hear the case of three judges whom Fujimori removed from a constitutional tribunal after they ruled he could not seek a third term.

"In Peru, you have all the institutions in place which are supposed to guarantee the rule of law--the Congress, the courts, the free press--but they are being controlled by the corrupt executive branch of government in what is really just a facade democracy," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch/Americas.

In an interview last week, Fujimori denied his government was stifling the press, saying such charges are fiction created by his political opposition and an over-zealous opposition media. "I have this conviction that there should be a free press," Fujimori said. "I came from a university, where the commitment to [free speech] was very strong. If there is some [crime against the press], there is immediately an order to the minister of internal security to investigate."

But press advocates think otherwise, and they cite the case of Channel 2 as proof. Ivcher, a successful entrepreneur, was born in Israel and became a naturalized Peruvian citizen, buying into the station in the 1980s. In 1996, after the worst of Peru's war against the guerrillas had passed, the channel's investigative journalists began focusing on widespread rumors of government corruption, Ivcher said in a telephone interview from Israel, where he and his family have fled to escape prosecution in Peru.

After the broadcast of reports linking members of the military to bribes from drug traffickers, Ivcher said, two of Fujimori's top ministers came to his office in January 1997 and offered millions in government advertising in exchange for the power to veto certain stories.

Ivcher refused. A few months later, the station aired a story alleging that an intelligence officer, Leonor La Rosa, was tortured and her colleague, Mariela Barreto, was murdered and dismembered for leaking government plans to threaten and assault several Peruvian journalists.

Citing tax forms, the station also revealed that the salary of Vladimiro Montesinos, the president's intelligence chief, increased to $600,000 in 1995, up from a reported $8,500 two years earlier. Another story alleged that authorities had begun keeping journalists and opposition politicians under surveillance.

Soon after, stories came out smearing Ivcher in Peru's tabloid newspapers and magazines, freewheeling publications that criticize politicians and personalities of all stripes. In early 1997, the tabloids reported that Ivcher's naturalization papers were not on file and that he was forbidden to control Channel 2 by laws prohibiting foreign ownership of television stations. Days later, the government announced that Ivcher had never been naturalized, although he said he possessed copies of the naturalization documents.

A lengthy legal battle ensued, which was decided in courts that Ivcher and others say are controlled by the government. Fujimori, they point out, pushed through laws last year that placed much of the power of the judicial system in a body selected by his administration. Also, two-thirds of Peru's judges, including those who handled Ivcher's case, are "provisional," which means their status depends on the goodwill of the executive branch.

That, according to a U.S. State Department report on human rights published in February, "enabled the [Peruvian] Government to supervise more closely such cases as the fraud case of Baruch Ivcher." And in September 1997, the courts awarded control of Channel 2 to Ivcher's government-friendly minority partners, while proceedings were begun against other Ivcher companies and employees.

This year, Ivcher tried to turn over control of the station to his Peruvian-born daughters, to whom he had granted several shares. But courts ruled not only that this could not be done but that the contracts awarding them shares must have been falsified. It issued arrest warrants for Ivcher's two daughters, who have also fled the country. Since Sotelo's signature was also on the document as station manager, he was arrested.

The government reportedly has tried to "fix" the news at other stations as well. Nicolas Lucar, a local television anchor, quit his job in May after disclosing that the station's owners forced him to ask only scripted questions when Montesinos granted him an interview.

"The bottom line is that no one wants to end up like Ivcher--driven out of the country with their station stripped from them by the government, so they are censoring themselves," said Cesar Hildebrandt, who has reported several stories about government corruption.

This year, his station canceled his program, he said, citing "pressure" from the government. They told him he could return to the air only if he agrees to host a program on Peruvian history.

CAPTION: President Alberto Fujimori "will stop at nothing" to keep journalists quiet, one jailed broadcaster says.