EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week, the Inter-American Press Association held it's midyear meeting in San Diego, California, where the organization presented their latest report on press freedom in various nations. The following article, part one of a series is based on that report. It examines the state of journalism in Latin America. Part I focuses on Mexico and Cuba. Read Part II here.
SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- The perpetrators have no face and no name, but they usually make sure the victims and their families know the reason for their attack. Their weapon of choice is a firearm, but they can also rely on a plastic bag, an ax, a rope or even a pen. They hide behind government desks, in posh Caribbean hotels, and in suburban shacks on the outskirts of most Latin American cities. Often, before striking, they send a message to their victim with subtle requests to cease and desist, coupled with offers of a “juicy reward’’ in exchange for their cooperation.
A Hazardous Occupation in Mexico
In Mexico, now considered one of the most dangerous places for journalists, pressure from organized crime -- quite often under the cover of government officials -- has forced many media organizations to completely avoid any coverage related to drug traffickers. As a result, civilians have been forced to rely on informal social networks as a way to alert themselves to planned attacks and street blockades that drug traffickers set up for their operations.
The Mexican news media have also resorted to eliminating reporter bylines whenever they think a story might put a member of their staff at risk, a practice that quite often leads to a loss of credibility.
Last year, Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights registered 80 complaints of attacks against journalists, for a total of 608 over the last decade. In the same period, 66 journalists were killed, nearly half of them during the four years of the current administration of President Felipe Calderon. There have also been 12 reported disappearances of journalists and 18 attacks on media organizations.
No one has yet been brought to trial for any of those crimes.
The attacks against journalists in Mexico are happening in a landscape already littered with bodies. Some 36,000 murders have been reported in Mexico since Calderon took office in December 2006, yet the president insists that his strategy against the drug cartels is working, and that most of the victims had ties to the drug cartels, albeit with some “collateral damage”- referring to the deaths of innocent bystanders, many of them children.
Last year, Calderon made a promise to members of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) to support legislation that would make any attack on journalists a federal crime. But a year later, none of the crimes committed against journalists during his administration have been solved.
“There seems to be a lack of political will from the Mexican Congress,’’ said Juan Fernando Healy Loera, vice president of Mexico’s Freedom of the Press Commission, who attended the IAPA event in San Diego last week.
The State of Journalism in Cuba
With few exceptions, journalists in Cuba and other Caribbean nations routinely face government interfereance when they try to expose corruption by public officials and agencies.
Cuba would seem to surpass other Caribbean nations in regard to media control, since most news outlets on the island are controlled and owned by the state, serving as propaganda MILLS more than sources of information. According to a report presented at last week's IAPA midyear convention, the few independent media that manage to survive in Cuba face a constant stream of state repression, harassment and surveillance.
Perhaps the only good news for journalists is that some 75 reporters, union organizers and human rights activists who were arrested in March of 2003 were set free after being sentenced to three to 30 year prison terms. However, most were forced to flee the country with their families upon release, or face the possibility of being jailed once again.
The IAPA report also points out that most journalists who dare to criticize the current government of Raul Castro face all manner of intimidation, along with their family members. The few foreign correspondents currently allowed to work on the island report having to deal with a government policy they’ve described as the typical “carrot and stick.’’
“If the correspondent becomes too raucous in his criticism, all kinds of problems are created for him until his presence in Havana turns into a torment,’’ the report says. On the other hand, if the journalist behaves “nicely,” the Cuban government will not only let him or her work at ease, but will grant them contacts and interviews.
Despite these policies, the Cuban government has not been able to stifle all independent journalists, who have resorted to blogs and CD copies to reveal government actions otherwise not reported by the state-run news agencies.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “Cuba is the only country in Latin America where almost all forms of political expression are suppressed through harassment, beatings, and criminal accusations.”
There is no exact count of the Cuban blogs that are managing to get the attention of the international press, but the IAPA report cites several, including Generacion Y, written by internationally known blogger Yoani Sanchez, and Claudia Cadelo’s blog, Octavo Cerco.
Ironically, most independent Cuban journalists are better known outside their country than in it. Unfortunately, less than three percent of the Cuban population has access to the web, and that particularly small group of privileged Cubans is not exactly happy with what they read.
Coming up next (part two) - Central and South America, where freedom of the press comes with a “price tag.”
Earlier this week, New America Media published this article detailing the state of press freedom in the United States.
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