Attacks on the Press 2000: Americas Analysis

BY EXPOSING CORRUPTION, POLITICAL INTRIGUE, and massive abuse of power, journalists in Peru helped bring down the regime of President Alberto K. Fujimori last year. Fujimori’s dramatic fall demonstrated that the Latin American press remains a key bulwark against leaders who continue to use subtle and not-so subtle means to control the flow of information.

CPJ dubbed the Fujimori regime an “infotatorship” because it was based more on surveillance and media manipulation than on outright physical repression. In fact, Fujimori was right to fear the press. On September 14, an independent cable station broadcast a video that appeared to show Fujimori’s intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, bribing a former opposition member of Congress who had recently switched to Fujimori’s coalition. Montesinos fled Peru after the video aired, and Fujimori resigned in disgrace. With new elections pending, Peru’s interim government lost no time in purging the armed forces and judicial system of some Fujimori allies.

While the Peruvian infotatorship has faded, a new threat emerged next door. Populist Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías practices a modern variant of what Alexis de Tocqueville dubbed the tyranny of the majority, using referendums to amass personal power. While Chávez has not employed repressive measures against the media, he has used his nationally broadcast radio and television addresses to denounce the press and attack individual journalists. Emboldened by his remarks, some Chávez supporters have assaulted journalists-mostly verbally, but on some occasions physically. (See special report on Venezuela.)

In Cuba, meanwhile, state control of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. In 2000, the government of President Fidel Castro Ruz continued to make life miserable for independent journalists. Although CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández was unexpectedly released from jail at the beginning of 2001, two of his colleagues continued to languish in prison under the most squalid conditions.

In Cuba, an all-powerful state restricts the press. In Colombia, an increasingly weak state is powerless to prevent enemies of press freedom from using violence to suppress critical reporting. Three Colombian journalists were murdered because of their work in 2000, and scores of others were threatened, kidnapped, and chased into exile. Violence also remained a concern in the interior of Brazil, where journalists suffered attacks from politicians and landowners angered by their work. Radio journalist Zezinho Cazuza, for example, was apparently murdered on the orders of a local mayor whom he had accused of corruption.

Elsewhere, Bolivian journalists were threatened during a state of emergency that lasted almost two weeks. During Paraguay’s third attempted coup since 1996, rebel soldiers forced a radio station to broadcast their manifesto. In the aftermath of the coup, authorities arbitrarily arrested several journalists and dismantled a radio station’s transmitting equipment.

In countries still recovering from bloody civil wars, the past resurfaced in subtle ways. In Guatemala, an emboldened press corps faced threats and intimidation when it investigated a secret military intelligence agency and other sensitive issues. In El Salvador, conservative publishers reined in independent journalists after the rightist ARENA party lost ground to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a party of former leftist rebels, in local and national elections.

Elections took place in the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic’s vibrant press was tarnished by accusations of political bias. During the run-up to May parliamentary elections in Haiti, the country’s most prominent journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique, was shot and killed. Two radio stations shut down temporarily when they and other media outlets were threatened after Haiti’s presidential elections in November. At the same time, zealous election coverage by Haitian journalists helped discredit government claims that over 60 percent of the population had turned out to vote.

Mexican media also played a key role in ensuring the transparency of the watershed July 2 elections, which brought an unexpected end to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s seven-decade rule. The rise of the National Action Party (PAN) will mean a massive realignment of the historically pro-PRI mass media.

Over the past year, CPJ has devoted considerable attention to its campaign for the elimination of criminal defamation laws in the region, which it launched in 1998. In Buenos Aires from June 7-9, CPJ hosted a meeting of journalists, lawyers, and academics, in collaboration with the local press freedom organization Asociación Periodistas, to plan for the reform of criminal defamation laws in Latin America. In the Declaration of Buenos Aires, the conference’s participants affirmed their belief that no journalist should ever be jailed for what he or she writes.

When the conference took place, Argentina was poised to become the first Latin American country to eliminate criminal penalties for defamation in cases involving public officials. Unfortunately, the proposed bill was shelved after Argentina’s inquisitive press unearthed a bribery scandal involving a few of the same senators who had pledged to support the legislation.

In Panama, too, lawmakers retreated from gains made in 1999, when some of the country’s most infamous gag laws were abolished. A proposal to eliminate so-called disrespect (desacato) laws, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ruled in violation of international law, was rejected. Equally worrying, Parliament passed an omnibus code of administrative procedure that in effect eliminated the concept of a public right to government information, although the offending provision was later modified after loud protests.

Marylene Smeets is the Americas program coordinator at CPJ. Sauro González Rodríguez is the Americas program researcher at CPJ. He did extensive research and writing for this section. Paloma Dallas, Trenton Daniel, Karl Penhaul also contributed.

The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation provided substantial support toward CPJ’s work in the Americas in 2000. A two-year grant from The Tinker Foundation is supporting CPJ’s campaign to eliminate criminal defamation in the Americas. Christopher Bell and Michael Cronin helped organize the criminal defamation conference. The Freedom Forum funded CPJ’s 2000 mission to Venezuela.