Latin America: The Press Under Pressure (Part II)

Latin America: The Press Under Pressure (Part II)

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier this month, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) held it's midyear meeting in San Diego, California, where the organization presented recent reports on press freedom in various nations across the globe. Those reports are the basis for the following article, part two of a series examining the state of journalism in Latin America. Part one focused on Mexico and Cuba, while this report focuses on IAPA findings in Central and South America.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Reported cases of violence against journalists in Central America have not yet reached levels as high as in Mexico, but signs of increasing danger for reporters are starting to surface in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Panama, government orchestrated legal maneuverings are making business difficult for news outlets that dare to question or critique government policies and actions.

“We are living in difficult times,’’ said Gonzalo Marroquin, current president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), during the organization’s midterm meeting in San Diego earlier this month. “We don’t have the resources that (governments) have.’’

Although many Central American governments have agreed to pass laws to facilitate easier media access to public information, those laws are rarely adhered to.

As a case in point, according to IAPA reports, the Guatemalan government was found to only advertise in news outlets willing to provide them with favorable coverage. At the same time, the government has demonstrated an unwillingness to investigate threats made against those journalists who don’t tow the government line.

In El Salvador, the government is endorsing laws that would impose fiscal “reforms” on news organizations, raising suspicions that the new laws could be use to exert editorial pressure on those news organizations not willing to go along with government “requests.” The Salvadoran government is also promoting laws that would make it easier to file a lawsuit against a news organization or journalist in cases regarding libel.

The worst-case scenario for freedom of the press in Central America may be in Honduras, where eleven journalists were killed last year, with no indication that the crimes will be resolved in court. Top level government official Armando Calidonio, vice-minister of public security, has stated publicly that the executions of those journalists were completely unrelated to their news gathering activities.

The situation for journalists in Honduras has worsened since the political crisis that erupted in June 2009, when a coup d’etat was orchestrated against elected President Manuel Zelaya, who has since been replaced by Porfirio Lobo Sosa. The move prompted the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Honduras, and only recently has the Lobo Sosa presidency been able to garner support from other Latin American countries, such as Colombia.

IAPA reports show that the political crisis allowed organized crime syndicates to gain a greater foothold in Honduras, and according to the US State Department, more than 80 percent of all drugs coming north from South America pass through Honduras. This, according to IAPA, has led to a sharp increase in attacks on Honduran journalists and media organizations.

In Nicaragua, reported incidents of violence and sabotage against the press are also piling up. Violent actions against El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa, two influential newspapers that have been critical of President Daniel Ortega, have been subject to boycotts, and a number of their staff reporters have received threats in response to their reporting.

Mirroring the strategy employed in Guatemala, Ortega’s administration has resorted to eliminating all government advertising in news outlets his Sandinista party considers leaning too far to “the right,” a euphemism for those who dissent or criticize his government’s decisions. The most open attacks are often not perpetrated directly by the government, but by labor unions and political sympathizers. According to the IAPA report, the Ortega government has also ignored the laws governing access to public information, and he has banned “non friendly news organizations” from attending government events.

The IAPA reports points out that in Panama, President Ricardo Martinelli sustains a relationship of open confrontation with several news organizations, and at least one Panamanian journalist has been deported after being accused of instigating anti-government protests in his columns.

South America

In Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, storm clouds are gathering over what is already an unfavorable climate for journalists and news organizations, as those governments move forward with plans to nationalize the media and control news content.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has closed down the media network RCTV, confiscating their equipment and cancelling the broadcast permits of their 34 radio stations. Globovision, another major television network, is fighting a battle in court to continue it’s operations, while the company’s president, Guillermo Zuloaga, followed in the footsteps of other news chiefs from organizations like Zeta Magazine and the daily El Nuevo Pais, by fleeing the country in exile.

The Chavez government has also sought to control the internet and social networking sites by supporting laws that would prohibit the dissemination of images or messages that could “alter the public order,” or “disrespect government institutions (and) representatives.” Another law, if approved, would create an independent government agency with the legal power to suspend operating permits to any news outlet suspected of interfering with the “national interest,’’ or the “public safety.”

Last month, the Venezuelan National Press Workers Union filed 159 claims of violations against the free press with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Most of those claims fingered government security forces and officials as the perpetrators.

In Colombia, death threats against journalists and a subsequent lack of initiative shown by the Colombian attorney general’s office in investigating those threats were cited as major worries for the country’s news organizations. IAPA reports show that the 27 claims filed by Colombian journalists last year remain unresolved.

Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia seem to be paying attention to the methods being used by Chavez in Venezuela, filing civil suits against journalists and cancelling operating permits belonging to news organizations.

In Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez has been accused of openly rewarding and even creating news organizations that are favorable to her administration. In Uruguay and Paraguay, instances of government “favoritism’’ toward friendly media outlets are on the rise.

According to the IAPA, only Brazil and Chile have shown some advances in practices related to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Chile reported no major incidents, with the exception of a law that demands radio stations dedicate 20 percent of their air time to Chilean music, and government challenges of a law that regulates the amount of fines imposed on media organizations and journalists who are found guilty of libel.

For a complete report on every country, please visit IAPA’s web page at http://www.sipiapa.org