Press Rights in Latin America — A Fading Concept

• Gangs, drugs and politicians menace the press

• Legislation and intimidation keep press on a short leash

• If the current situation regarding the press does not improve, the region will not only suffer, but it will lose its capacity to self-reform

Currently, the Latin American press is up against formidable odds. Local drug cartels, street gangs, and government corruption are severely confining the ability of the press to report freely on a range of controversial subjects. Restricted reporting and the practice of “soft censorship” lurk behind the scene where government censorship could be a dangerous notion, not just for individual countries but also for overall U.S.-Latin American relations. If the press remains trapped in the grip of organized crime, threatened by drug cartels and governmental venality, then the quality of life throughout Latin America will be negatively affected. There are two primary routes in which the press succumbs to censorship: directly, as a result of government intimidation, and through gang violence; or indirectly, which includes self-censorship out of fear, lack of professional solidarity from one’s journalistic peers or a supportive management, and a deficiency of reliable investigative journalism due to an infinite capacity for self intimidation.

Cuba
Cuba has the most restrictive species of press freedom and contingent press policies in the Western Hemisphere. The Cuban government holds a tight grip on reporting from both within and outside the nation’s borders. Its constitution only allows qualified free speech and press so long as those institutes “conform to the aims of socialist society”. There is considerably more leeway when it comes to the differences of opinions on lifestyle matters. As Fidel Castro’s reign came to an end, Cuba’s current president, Raúl Castro, was being groomed to continue his brother’s legacy. However, this succession may not have turned out exactly as intended by Fidel. The new president, particularly after officially succeeding his brother, began to announce a stream of reforms, a number of which were quite significant in nature. No reform was mentioned concerning the Constitutional status of the press, however. Cuba’s constitution has a built-in clause that definitively qualifies the ownership of private media. The government also has instituted laws to discourage the free opinion of the foreign press operating in the country, such as the 1997 Law of National Dignity, which states that a 3-10 year sentence will be applied to anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy’s media in a hostile manner.

The government’s clutch on the local press is so firm that tenacious journalists often must use illegal subterfuges to assure that their voices are heard. Even though blogs are becoming an extremely popular venue for reporting, Cuban authors are forced to publish their work under pseudonyms. To access the tightly controlled state sponsored internet, journalists, in practice, must connect to it via private cybercafés using passwords bought on the black market. Since outside media is prohibited, and can only be accessed at tourist-style hotels, only the relatively wealthy amongst the general population are able to gain access to foreign publications on the internet. This is because the voucher cards needed to pay for this service are expensive and often difficult to obtain.

Repercussions for violating the strict press laws can result in drastic government sanctions. According to the intensely anti-Havana, Reporters without Borders, 23 journalists, most of whom were imprisoned during the “Black Spring” crackdown in March of 2003, remain incarcerated in Cuba, deemed “mercenaries in the pay of the United States” by Cuban authorities. Cuba is suspected of having the world’s second largest prison population of media personnel, behind China. In addition to a spectrum of human rights violations, Cuba is also known for expelling foreign journalists when they are found to be painting “negative images” of the country. The government is very slow to issue entrance visas to foreign journalists who have had a record presenting island issues in a negative light.

With the pace of change toward normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations now picking up, the hope is that President Obama will be successfully offering diplomatic and trade concessions in exchange for a more open society in Cuba. Yet the chances of reversing a fifty-year governmentally-imposed tradition of tight control on local journalists and the surveillance of foreign reporters, is likely to prove to be a formidable task.

Colombia
While the Colombian constitution grants press freedoms, journalists sometimes have found it rather difficult to exercise them. An environment dominated by drug trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering, leftist guerrillas and murderous right wing paramilitary groups, the suspicions and dark deeds carried out by security forces, and the many personal dangers facing any kind of investigative journalism, has proven to be alarming obstacles for reporters to practice their profession. Similarly, finding safe haven in the courts has not often proved successful either. This is exemplified when in January of 2008, a court in Barranquilla ordered a local newspaper to stop spreading information about the results of a corruption investigation. In May of the same year, it also turned out, that there was an illegal surveillance of at least thirteen journalists in effect. These rulings and actions, commonplace when it comes to inappropriate acts in the government and courts, represent violations of fundamental journalist rights.

Pushing an agenda highlighting a free press is difficult enough when President Alvaro Uribe himself makes no effort to limit his negative response to such rights. It is well known that Uribe does not take kindly to criticism and has been known to convey direct threats to members of the media. Journalists are often forced to use a passive voice when attempting to report on instances of corruption, most notably in the recent para-politics scandal involving scores of corrupted legislators and members of the rightwing vigilante group. The incident was disclosed when the weekly publication, Semana, courageously revealed that the Colombian Secret Service, DAS, which reports directly to the president, had been taping and then selling copies of the tapes concerning opposition legislators, Supreme Court Justices, and various state attorneys. Such oppressive actions hurt not only the media, but adversely affect the entire Colombian public. Critics maintain that the culture of corruption must end, starting at the top. Its depth and extent have had a pernicious impact on democratic institutions when an individual with President Uribe’s authority can threaten a member of the media whose investigative pursuits may prove embarrassing to his administration.

Yet, on January 23 2009, a Colombian court sentenced a former mayor to 28 years in prison for ordering the murder of three journalists. This was the first time since 1992 in which the mastermind behind a reporter’s assassination has been convicted and imprisoned. This landmark case could represent a rare sign of hope in a country that has been devastated by corruption and repeatedly visited by violence with near impunity.

Venezuela
Hugo Chávez tends to be in an attack mode when it comes to being sensitive toward criticism directed at him from the country’s anti-government and often scurrilous local and foreign press. For its part, the Venezuelan government has expanded the scope of those it can take proceedings against for what it sees as disrespect or insulting behavior towards public officials, including the President. For example, the government can reprimand television and radio channels’ personnel for promoting, justifying or inciting civic conflict. The President also has attempted to use his power to influence the media’s stance on various controversial issues by exercising the right not to renew a company’s license; as seen with Radio Caracas Televisión Internacional (RCTV), a TV channel which during the April 2002 failed coup can be described as acting more like a pro-golpe partisan than a respectable professional. Regardless of other issues, the Committee to Protect Journalists criticized a number of Latin American countries for their failure to speak out against Venezuela’s censorship of its oldest nationwide television network, seeing the event as a serious setback for freedom of the press and democracy in the region. Although outright violations of press freedom on behalf of the media are relatively few in number, with much of the media being anti-Chávez by nature, such acts suggest the possibility of more encroachments against the opposition media if the social tension resulting from the political rift in the country continues to worsen.

Chávez is not above using his personal charisma to ridicule members of the press who question his authority. In keeping such constant scrutiny on the press, the Chávez administration has been able to pass legislation that assigns itself more authority over what it can or cannot say or do when it comes to the opposition. While the words may appear fair, and Chávez may seem to have gone out of his way to compare this legislation to similar policies of other countries such as the U.S. and Canada, his critics, nevertheless, accuse him of self-consciously using vague language akin to a “power steal” method. Such tactics allowed for open combat against the opposition, but nothing severe or sustained enough to have his media targets become fully aware of the salami tactics that were being used against them.

The Venezuelan Laws of Social Responsibility can punish a citizen for any message publicly transmitted which is deemed to be against “national security.” The definition of that imprecise piece of phraseology is ultimately determined in practice by government authorities and could encompass anything ranging from promoting violence to criticizing Hugo Chávez’s policies. Leaders who want to press a controversial agenda without inviting retribution have used such a national security blanket in the past. In the U.S., former President Bush was able to pass legislation thought by many to violate individual rights in the name of “national security,” by resorting to the controversial USA PATRIOT Act.

Article 58 of the Venezuelan constitution has come to be of great concern to the Organization of American States (OAS). That clause states that “Everyone has the right to timely, truthful, impartial and uncensored information.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in analyzing this article, notes that, “requiring that information be truthful, timely, and so on could be a kind of prior censorship prohibited in the American Convention on Human Rights.” Government censorship is much easier when it is engrossed within the law. Legalized censorship makes it very difficult to foster change in a tense environment. In this instance, President Chávez’s censorship of the press could be technically justified under Venezuelan law, and that fact would be hard to counter, especially when the legal foundation is so questionable.

In May 2007 the license for RCTV expired, and just as Hugo Chávez had promised, he did not renew it. On the surface, the following situation explains why press rights are currently found to be in a tenuous situation in Venezuela. Hugo Chávez blames RCTV, with good evidence, for participating in the failed 2002 coup which was investigated in a COHA research finding issued on January 19, 2007 entitled Hugo Chávez, the Media and Everybody Else. RCTV claims that the communication authorities’ refusal to renew its license was a violation of its rights, considering that the channel ostensibly had not violated any regulations. With freedom of speech permitted in certain situations and restricted in others, it is at times difficult for the press to determine what should be viewed as a legitimate critique of policy and what deserves to be seen as a threat to national security. RCTV, justifiably, was found guilty of actively participating, and not merely reporting on the April coup attempt. One of its leaders was quoted at the time as describing RCTV as, “one of the coup leaders,” and as one of “[our] secret weapons”. Chávez appears to have been within his legal boundaries to discontinue licensing RCTV, even if the TV channel did not commit any specific rule violations. The most pressing concern over the entire matter for Chávez was that much of the Venezuelan public was not too happy about his decision on non-renewal. The subject sharply resurfaced again when the President narrowly lost the constitutional referendum in 2007.

Mexico
Rather than repeated cases of blatant censorship, there are many other indirect ways free press is being submerged today in a number of Latin American countries, such as Mexico. A lack of solidarity amongst journalists, the absence of collective protection for them, and a fear of the consequences of investigative reporting, are among the three main reasons why the press inadvertently is damaging itself, or is forced to at least moderate its voice.

Diminishing solidarity amongst journalists is a pressing issue for journalistic organizations. Mexico recently has become the most dangerous country in Latin America for journalists to practice their profession. Reporters are either gunned down or bought off by the drug cartels largely out of fear, intimidation, or venality. One Mexican reporter acknowledged that it was a matter of routine hard cash that could acquire his services. When journalists are found reporting on sensitive security issues, they are often taken to court where they may find themselves bereft of the support of their editors or owners. In response, ad hoc journalistic initiatives are springing up throughout Latin America with news people encouraging their colleagues to unite and collaborate on projects, as well as coming to each other’s defense in the name of protecting free and ethical reporting.

A lack of defense for journalists, especially in high-risk areas, is of major concern for the profession. The issue of a lack of defense is manifested due to the corruption running rampant in the police and anti-drug forces, and the federal government often responsible for acts of quasi-censorship. Journalists feel isolated and devoid of resources, because there are few trust-worthy protective agencies prepared to come to their aid. Furthermore, if the government is not actively censoring the reporters themselves, they are not making much of an effort to protect publications from the intimidation of gangs or the drug cartels, which often use brutal methods to bring reporters to heel. The Mexican publication, Zeta, claims that its reporters have had to use armored cars, as well as specially treated walls and office windows, along with bulletproof vests in an attempt to protect themselves against hostile forces trying to harm them. Zeta also has changed its policy to using the anonymous byline, Zeta Investigations, instead of signing off by referring to a reporter’s own name, a simple protective measure. When journalists are attacked, whether by government or gangs, the alleged culprits are rarely subjected to an effective investigation, allowing impunity to reign.

While imminent danger is clearly a part of everyday life in areas where Zeta operates, the government fails to at a minimum, offer exposed and highly vulnerable reporters any kind of psychological aid or tangible security. Journalists, out of prudence, are thus inadvertently being forced to withhold published information out of fear for their own physical safety and mental well-being. Only when journalists have been granted safe working conditions and their professional tenets are honored in practice and not just theory, will ethical journalism be able to counter an otherwise corrupt system.

Another major obstacle to encourage the practice of free and balanced journalism is the lack of an ideal environment for carrying on investigative reporting. Columbia University Professor John Dinges blames a “failure to systemically collect government information, and a complete absence of descriptive reporting, which should educate citizens about policy.” These issues help set the stage for what could turn out to be a major setback in producing the kind of corruption-fighting articles required of a democratic media. Dinges attributes much of this pitfall to a tendency for Latin American journalists to engage in self or anticipatory censorship. For example, the Chilean newspaper, El Mercurio, has a policy that it will not criticize the Catholic Church on any grounds. This method of sanitized reporting is terribly dangerous to the practice of journalism because it preemptively silences particular viewpoints, and serves to protect powerful but tainted institutions from being touched by outside criticism.

Bolivia
Others attempt to limit criticism, at least metaphorically, by sometimes raising the volume of their own voices, like Bolivian President Evo Morales. The Open Justice Initiative accuses many Latin American governments, including Bolivian officials, of tossing millions of dollars around, trying to buy favorable coverage. This practice, compounded by low salaries and lack of job security for many journalists, worsens the situation by chronically buying a viewpoint that is congratulatory, but not necessarily true.

At the beginning of this year, Morales announced a national project for 2009 – the creation of a state-run newspaper, MAS television, and expanded radio coverage. This periodical, entitled Cambio, would feature a MAS viewpoint, and would be an addition to Bolivia’s already established and often privately owned news agencies, television stations, weekly and daily papers, and a slew of radio broadcasts. Morales asked the government’s communication department to inaugurate the newspaper by January 22, marking the third anniversary of his assumption of the presidency.

The Bolivian leader proclaimed that his plan to launch a state-sponsored newspaper was due to his desire to have the truth reported, not to suffocate a free press. He complained that different local members of Unitel, the established Bolivian television channel owned by the Monasterio family, have been attacking him with lies and distortions. The Monasterios’ are vehement opponents of the Morales administration, perhaps due to the fact that Morales has intervened against that family’s longstanding practice of accumulating, for speculative purposes, large plots of unproductive land. However, Morales’ allegations against Unitel are not exclusive to it. He has accused almost all of Bolivia’s private publications and broadcast networks of striving to taint his image, and in turn refused to give press conferences to local press. He also has been known to publically humiliate reporters for being the puppets of media owners that are aligned with the rightist opposition. Regardless, he claims he will not leave an arena unfettered for the opposition to publish its taunts and distortions against his administration. But Morales also has assured the public that, “the truth from the opposition [would] be considered so it can help correct [the administration’s] mistakes.”

Morales hardly has had a friendly, longstanding, and trustworthy relationship with the opposition press. The National Association of Journalists deemed Morales’ behavior towards its members as a matter of “verbal abuse.” Adding to the fire now raging between the media moguls and the Bolivian leader, Morales has announced his plan for a state run television station, which would be backed by Venezuelan and Iranian funding (however, recently Iran has backed out). The station would serve to represent Bolivia’s farming and the indigenous groups, which coincidently compose the mainstay of Morales’ power base. On preceding occasions, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have expressed interest in possibly sponsoring a Bolivian news station. The introductory issue of the new government-sponsored publication featured an interview with Morales promoting the new constitution, as well as a cover photo of him posing amongst admiring children. Either his effort to reform the press represents a determined attempt at redressing the imbalances that have long bedeviled independent press coverage in the country, or perhaps it is a façade to regulate the diversity of coverage in his favor.

Conclusion
Is there hope for Latin American journalism? Possibly, if the U.S. lends a much needed hand by constructively taming down the intensity of its contribution to the drug war and gang violence. However, if Washington continues to mistreat the Western Hemisphere for another eight years by kindling the struggles which may not be in the regions’ or Washington’s best interest, the plight of Latin America can only worsen. In addition to addressing the issue of gang violence and drug wars, it is crucial that the U.S. acts as a role model by projecting a reputation for credibility when it comes to human rights issues, clean government, and matters of financial clarity in the region.

President Obama has a unique opportunity to mend this country’s foreign policy errors by working with Latin American leaders to ensure not only freedom of the press, but a balanced press. A free press would undoubtedly improve the quality of life in Latin America. In turn, an enhanced quality of life could lessen the desire for mass immigration to occur, which is currently leeching the countryside of the men and family structure needed to help raise their children, contributing to local strife and family breakdown. The fight for a free press is long from over. Without an independent press, says the Open Justice Initiative, no country can enjoy the benefits of a vibrant democracy. Thankfully, there are organizations dedicated to achieving it and helping to right the cause. These groups have made press rights violations throughout the world a much more public matter.

2 thoughts on “Press Rights in Latin America — A Fading Concept

  • March 4, 2009 at 10:20 am
    Permalink

    Some interesting analysis although I don't think you have a very good handle on Cuban realities.

    However, you missed the biggest threat to press freedom in Latin America and in the United States which is ownership by transnational corporations and in Latin America by the oligarchies. If only the elites own the means of mass communication, their "press freedom" conflicts with my "freedom to know."

    I agree with your conclusion that US supply side drug policy is promoting violence, including violence against journalists. On the other hand, I don't see that the US corporate press offers much of an example for Latin America's media to emulate.

    Chuck Kaufman

    Alliance for Global Justice

    Reply
  • March 9, 2009 at 3:35 pm
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    Mr. Kaufman does have a good point about the concentration of media ownership.

    There are other factors, too.

    The oligarchs who run the mainstream media, by the examples of their personal conduct and because of the prevailing economic relations, foster a culture of corruption within journalism. Here in Panama, bribery to publish puff pieces or to suppress investigative journalism is common.

    Within the servile ranks of journalists who know on which side the bread gets buttered and very little else, there is a persistent attempt to force those who don’t play their games out of journalism. Various licensing schemes are constantly promoted. What’s especially ironic about this in the Panamanian context is how badly our journalists are educated at the University of Panama Faculty of Social Communication, which is always supposed to be the place where one must have studied in order to be licensed. They don’t even have student media at the University of Panama.

    Throughout much of Latin America, and certainly in Panama, there is a culture of intimidation by the filing or threat to file bogus civil or criminal defamation charges. Because of this in the mainstream media the editors tend to censor their reporters who have good stories, in order to avoid legal bills.

    One aspect of the Blair & Wagner story with which I may disagree — but maybe not, because I see a trend noted without necessarily a position being taken on it — is about Morales being strident with certain reporters for the opposition press.

    See, I think it’s far healthier for politicians to learn how to say, in their own ways, “you jerk!” than for them to say “you’re being charged with such and such.” I have no problems with politicians as media critics, but very much do when they try to be media censors.

    I find it unfortunate that the point of departure for discussion of the situation in Venezuela always has to be the RCTV license. If a US network had done to Bush and the USA what RCTV and its fellow coup conspirators did to Chávez and Venezuela, prosecutors would have asked for the death penalty. That they didn’t get their license renewed was a mild sanction considering the circumstances.

    But beyond that you have a government that is not really one of the region’s more repressive in dealing with hostile reporting, and supporters of the government who are much rougher with the opposition press. I am surprised that the article didn’t mention the recent Inter-American Human Rights Court decision on the RCTV and Globovision cases and its comments on the situation of the Venezuelan press.

    Eric Jackson
    The Panama News

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