Attacks on the Press 2007: Americas Analysis

Preaching Without A Choir
By Carlos Lauría

At June's annual assembly of the organization of American states (OAS) in Panama, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged foreign ministers to send the group's secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, to investigate Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías' decision to pull the plug on the country's oldest private television station, RCTV.

The proposal prompted a strong reaction from the Venezuelan government. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said the OAS should investigate U.S. rights violations before looking into the situation with RCTV. "If the OAS is going to name a commission, it first must go to the prisons of Guantánamo ... or the Mexican border, if it really wants to review human rights and how they hunt down [migrants]," news reports quoted Maduro as saying.

The dispute forced the countries attending the OAS assembly to take positions--and the United States was clearly on the losing side. Rice's proposal drew no supporters. While Bolivian, Nicaraguan, and Ecuadoran officials praised Chávez's decision, most countries simply cited Venezuela's sovereignty and its right to regulate its own airwaves.

"Failure by most Latin American countries to speak out against Venezuela's censorship of its oldest nationwide television network marked a serious setback for freedom of the press--and democracy--in the region," wrote Andrés Oppenheimer, a CPJ board member, in his column for The Miami Herald.

The erosion of U.S. moral authority in criticizing free press violations has made for a more dangerous environment for journalists in Latin America, especially during a period in which several democratic leaders are marginalizing the media. It is a far cry from a decade ago, when the United States spearheaded the creation of the OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression. The Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created the position after discussions with press groups in the United States and Latin America. The special rapporteur was unanimously endorsed by the heads of state attending the 1998 Summit of the Americas in Chile.

But as U.S. relations in the region have deteriorated, so has its standing as a leader in promoting human rights. Most pointedly, by holding two journalists for prolonged periods without formally charging them--one in Iraq and the other at Guantánamo Bay--the United States has damaged its reputation as a leader of democracy, many regional experts say.

In Venezuela, critics say, U.S. credibility was undermined by its support for partisan opposition groups, including one group that briefly deposed Chávez in 2002. "Backing these organizations is inconsistent with the aims of strengthening democratic institutions and fostering reconciliation in such a polarized society," said Michael Shifter, a vice president of Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based policy analysis center, in a March report titled "Hugo Chávez: A Test for U.S. Policy."

Relations between the two nations have only worsened since then, rendering U.S. denunciations ineffective. Chávez has long contended that the Bush administration wants to isolate Venezuela and destabilize the country. Officials have accused Washington of mounting a propaganda campaign via several U.S. and Venezuelan media outlets, and by funding local nongovernmental organizations. Each time the United States criticized Chávez's press freedom record, Venezuela responded by saying the Bush administration lost its moral capacity to point out free press violations, citing detained journalists as evidence.

In particular, Venezuelan government officials were quick to cite the 2005 jailing of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller in defending their own decision to restrict news coverage in the name of preserving social order. Other cases in which U.S. journalists were compelled to reveal confidential sources prompted critics in the region to question whether the United States was backing away from the guarantees of free speech in the U.S. Constitution.

"We have lost influence, and I think that it has to do with the attitude of the United States in its pursuit of foreign policy internationally," said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a liberal nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights. "An example is the lack of a multilateral approach to the solution of a number of problems. The U.S. is marginalizing itself in Latin America. The presence of long-term prisoners, held without trial in Guantánamo, has caused the U.S. a dramatic loss of credibility on human rights issues in the region."

In the case of Cuba, the U.S. government has little hope of influencing the press freedom environment because of its universal condemnation of Fidel Castro's government and its longstanding economic embargo, political analysts and journalists throughout the region say. These blanket stances divert attention from the island's specific problems, analysts say, such as the lack of free expression and the inhumane treatment of imprisoned journalists.
Many regional leaders avoid debating Cuba's press freedom record because they don't want to be perceived as being aligned with the United States. The annual U.S. resolution before the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning Cuba's human rights record has drawn few supporters. Leftist administrations have traditionally opposed the measure, and a number of other regional leaders abstain because they want to stay out of the Havana-Washington dispute.

The problem does not rest solely in Washington, one analyst noted. "If, by the sole purpose of not wanting to be seen [as] aligned with U.S. policy, Latin Americans are willing to keep their mouths closed and not criticize gross human rights violations, that's their issue," said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. "This is a case where Latin America in general is willing to accept and even honor a dictator who has been in power for decades."

But U.S. President George W. Bush's policy speeches on Cuba--along with photographs of high-ranking U.S. officials posing with dissidents and their families--usually backfire, analysts believe, by giving Castro and his brother, Raúl, ammunition to claim that their regime is a victim of U.S. aggression. Without any evidence, the Cuban government has insisted that independent domestic journalists are "mercenaries" at the service of the United States. With 24 journalists currently imprisoned, Cuba remains the world's second-leading jailer of journalists, behind only China.

The U.S. government has supported Cuban civil society, including independent journalists, through material assistance and training. The U.S. Agency for International Development has funded action programs to build solidarity with the island's human rights activists and to give voice to Cuba's independent press. Although the United States considers the programs to be transparent, analysts say that the Americans' strong support has played into the Cuban government's strategy to depict dissidents as spies in service of U.S. imperialism.

Even Cuba's independent journalists are wary of American support. "The U.S. stubbornness toward Cuba's foreign policy serves as an argument for many Latin American governments to justify their lack of solidarity with dissidents and independent journalists," prominent Cuban writer and poet Raúl Rivero Castañeda told CPJ. "The embargo policy has no sense and has played into the Cuban government's strategy," said Rivero, a former prisoner who now lives in exile in Spain.

So focused on Venezuela and Cuba is the United States, critics say, that it has ignored human rights and press freedom conditions in Colombia. Washington has stated that a central goal of U.S. aid to Colombia is the promotion and protection of human rights. But critics say that the Bush administration has given President Álvaro Uribe Vélez's administration a blank check to fight the war on drugs without creating a system that will require the Colombian government to account for human rights violations, including violence against the press.

While the United States asserts that all aid to Colombia is contingent on improving the country's human rights record, international human rights groups consider the plan seriously flawed by the rise of extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military. Human rights organizations also claim that investigations into cases of human rights abuses by the military have shown little progress.

"It's crucial that the United States, through its government and Congress, exert tighter scrutiny over human rights in Colombia," said prominent Colombian journalist Daniel Coronell, news director for the television network Canal Uno and columnist for the newsweekly Semana. Saying U.S. attention has been "sporadic," Coronell urged "a more rigorous and permanent" examination of human rights and press freedom.

Some analysts have also criticized the United States for backing controversial Colombian legislation that grants judicial concessions to members of illegal armed groups. The 2005 Law of Justice and Peace, which offers reduced penalties to right-wing paramilitary fighters in exchange for demobilization and voluntary confessions, was hailed by the Bush administration as an important step toward ending Colombia's civil conflict.

Purcell said U.S. policy toward Colombia should be considered through the lens of recent history. "There has been a significant improvement in the behavior of the armed forces and efforts to demobilize paramilitaries," she noted. "It hasn't been totally successful, but it must be looked at in the context of where Colombia was coming from: an unrelenting guerrilla war that had gone on for decades. Congress has imposed all kinds of restrictions and conditions that President Uribe has been trying to meet."

Still, human rights groups, both international and domestic, have criticized the legislation for failing to ensure a proper level of justice. The Justice and Peace hearings were extremely difficult for the local press to cover, CPJ research shows. Authorities systematically banned reporters from the proceedings, while former paramilitaries threatened journalists and sources outside. As a result, coverage of paramilitary confessions was weak throughout the country, particularly in areas where the paramilitary presence is still strong.

In Mexico and much of Central America, where the United States still exerts considerable influence, there is a perception that Washington has simply lost interest. Since September 11, 2001, as the United States has shifted much of its focus to terrorism and the Arab world, the result has been a lack of U.S. engagement in human rights and press freedom issues. An epidemic of extrajudicial killings in Mexico, including the slayings of reporters, has generated little vocal concern from the Bush administration.

Top administration officials have acknowledged that a shift in priorities has led to an erosion of support in some corners. "People across the world ... were unhappy with some of the decisions that our country has made," said Karen Hughes, former U.S. undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, during a November interview on National Public Radio. Those decisions were made "in the interests of a more secure world," said Hughes, but she acknowledged it will take time to rebuild U.S. influence. "I wish we could snap our fingers and ... change impressions of our country tomorrow. But I don't think that's very realistic. I think that this is patient work, much as it was during the Cold War, and we are in a long ideological struggle."

February 5, 2008 12:09 PM ET |

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