Attacks on the Press 1999: Americas Analysis

By Marylene Smeets
Governments in several Latin American countries took steps to bring their media laws up to international standards. But as the Latin American press continued to expose wrongdoing, its very strength rendered it vulnerable to a new kind of harassment: defamation campaigns.

While Latin American reporters have become extremely good at exposing wrongdoing, they cannot count on the courts to investigate, prosecute, and ultimately punish the people whom they expose. In most countries, the judiciary remains notoriously weak, and is often unable or unwilling to investigate cases brought to its attention. As a result, journalists who expose corruption become sitting ducks. Since negative press coverage is one of the few effective sanctions against criminal behavior in Latin America, discrediting the press is an excellent way for criminals to avoid accountability.

This fact accounts for the growth of a new kind of attack against Latin American journalists that uses the trappings of journalism to mislead the public and defame or even endanger reporters. The most dramatic case was Peru, where an avalanche of government-backed tabloids filled with defamatory articles about leading independent journalists was launched with the sole intention of undermining public confidence in the press. In Guatemala, journalists were attacked and smeared in a mysterious radio program. (See special report.) And a group of powerful Panamanians unleashed a public defamation campaign against the leading daily La Prensa and its editor, Gustavo Gorriti, after the paper published reports linking the attorney general to drug traffickers.

In all three of these countries, journalists have struck back by using their investigative skills to expose the origins of the campaigns. Peruvian journalists uncovered overwhelming evidence that the country’s shadowy intelligence services were behind the defamation campaign in that country. Journalists in Guatemala documented the fact that the radio program had been bankrolled by a presidential advisor. And in Panama, journalists responded by stepping up their investigative efforts against the shadowy figures behind the defamation campaign.

In all these countries, anti-press defamation campaigns flourished because local judiciaries were weak and because the legal framework regulating relations between society and the press was undeveloped. But a few countries took measures to address these deficiencies, aided and supported particularly by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Historically, the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have provided an independent forum for journalists who could not obtain justice in their own countries. This year the Commission helped resolve several cases in Argentina and pushed for the elimination of criminal defamation from the Argentinean legal system. It also referred one Peruvian case and one Chilean case to the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica. At year’s end, the Commission was continuing to review several other press-related cases, including one Peruvian case involving wire-tapping. And having been banned journalist Alejandra Matus’s The Black Book of Chilean Justice as a threat to state security, a Chilean government representative appeared before the Commission and acknowledged the need to reform Chile’s anachronistic State Security Law.

Perhaps the most dramatic legal reform of 1999 was the partial repeal of the infamous Panamanian “gag laws,” which had long hindered the work of the press in that country. President Mireya Moscoso pledged to repeal the remaining gag laws by the summer of 2000.

But while some countries liberalized their press laws, others took measures to tighten controls on journalists. In Jamaica, a proposed law would make it difficult for journalists to report on government corruption. In Brazil, a law was accepted by the Chamber of Deputies to punish authorities who provide information to the press. In Cuba, where the government already had at its disposal an arsenal of legal measures to suppress independent reporting, a new law that virtually outlaws free expression took effect in March. The Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy established prison terms of up to 20 years for an array of press-related offenses.

Violence also remains a concern, particularly in Colombia, where five journalists were killed in the line of duty in 1999. But reporting on drug trafficking and the official protection that allows it to flourish is risky in other countries as well. Many journalists publish such stories without a byline, and media outlets that cover the drug trade have been subjected to tax harassment, threats, and intimidation.

For Latin American journalists, the next challenge will be meeting higher professional standards. A growing awareness of the desperate public need for accurate and balanced information has led journalists in many countries to call for the adoption of a code of ethics. But the issues are complex, as Colombian journalists recently discovered when they tried to de-sensationalize violence by jointly agreeing to publish all violent images in black and white. The plan was rapidly abandoned, reportedly because of a drop in circulation.

Their experience demonstrates that Latin American media are becoming increasingly market-driven after decades of state subsidies. This has led to a growing reliance on sensational content. At the same time, media owners who grew fat and lazy under government sponsorship have been forced to streamline and professionalize their publications. Many have hired top young reporters, and have distanced themselves from the local government.

From the press freedom point of view, Latin America’s Internet experience has also been a mixed bag. In Peru and Panama, enemies of independent journalism made extensive use of the Internet to wage anti-press defamation campaigns. But the Internet has also been used to circumvent censorship. The stories of independent Cuban journalists are mainly distributed over the Internet, and the banned The Black Book of Chilean Justice attracted 20,000 hits the first day it was posted on the Web.

Marylene Smeets is the Americas program coordinator at CPJ.
  A two-year grant from the Tinker Foundation is supporting CPJ’s campaign to eliminate criminal defamation from the Americas.
  Research for the report on press freedom groups in Latin America was made possible by support from the Freedom Forum.