Attacks on the Press 2001: Americas Analysis

AGAINST A BACKDROP OF TROUBLED ECONOMIES AND DEMOCRACIES, the Americas saw an increase in violent and verbal attacks against journalists during 2001.

The number of journalists murdered in the region has grown, with 11 killed for their work in 2001, compared to seven in 2000 and six in 1999. The violence is also occurring in more countries across the region. Notably, in Costa Rica–long considered one of Latin America’s freest and most democratic countries–the assassination of Parmenio Medina Pérez was the first murder documented by CPJ in that country’s recent history.

Medina’s killing proved an anomaly in other ways: As the outspoken producer and host of a radio program in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, Medina was the only Latin American journalist killed in a major city in 2001.

Since the late 1990s, CPJ research has shown that provincial journalists in Latin America face the greatest risks. In the past, high-profile journalists in large cities were usually targeted. Today, provincial journalists bear the brunt of killings and non-lethal violence. In Colombia’s escalating civil conflict, the three journalists killed in reprisal for their work all came from the provinces, as did the three who were killed for their work in 2000.

The growth of grassroots and local press freedom organizations, which have brought threats against provincial journalists into the spotlight, may account for part of those findings. But vocal protests against murders of well-known journalists are widely deemed to have lessened the violence in large cities.

Although determined advocacy has raised the political cost of attacking journalists, some leaders did not hesitate to lash out against the media when confronted by falling popularity and rising socioeconomic woes. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez Frías referred to the Venezuelan press as “anti-social communications media” and publicly threatened to expel foreigners who criticize the country. Because his followers have often taken the president’s words at face value, Chávez’s anti-press rhetoric created a climate conducive to violent attacks on the media.

In Haiti, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide launched a “zero tolerance” anti-crime campaign in June, implying that street criminals caught red-handed could be summarily punished without trial. A deputy from the president’s party later announced that the policy should be applied to Brignolle Lindor, news director of the private station Radio Echo 2000. Lindor had already received numerous threats from local authorities for inviting members of the opposition coalition to appear on his show. He was subsequently hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob of ruling-party supporters.

In violence-plagued Haiti, the year ended with an attempted coup that opposition parties maintain was a pretext to crush dissent. Hundreds of government supporters armed with machetes and guns accosted and threatened at least a dozen journalists. Aristide partisans attacked radio stations and vehicles belonging to private news organizations. As a result, at least 15 journalists left the country and as many as 40 went into hiding, according to international press reports.

Despite these daunting challenges, the Latin American press can pride itself in its effective advocacy for legal reform. Many proposals for legal reform presented by Latin American press groups concerned lack of access to government information, widely reported to be a major obstacle to reporting in the region.

The press association Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay, for instance, helped draft an access to information law after protests led to the repeal of a more limited government-supported version. And after protests caused the repeal of disastrous legislation in 2000, Panama passed an access to information law proposed by the international nongovernmental organization Transparency International.

Regional protections for freedom of expression also expanded in 2001. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, both part of the Organization of American States, handed down rulings that demonstrated that freedom of expression has become a priority. For the first time in a press freedom case, the court issued a “provisional measure”–usually only handed down in cases of “extreme gravity…to avoid irreparable damage,” according to inter-American law–ordering Costa Rican judges to stay a previous ruling on a defamation case while it moves through the Inter-American System.

Commission officials highlighted press freedom issues during a visit to Panama and received complaints from Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela, among others. Journalists throughout the hemisphere seemed to realize that they could seek redress through the Inter-American System, rather than being subjugated to the repressive whims of their national courts.

However, some countries, such as Venezuela, have been reluctant to follow the system’s orders. Moreover, criminal defamation suits remained a bane of journalists’ work, sometimes despite the reform of defamation laws. Many officials still use any available legal means to stifle press criticism. The tendency in Latin America for protecting honor and reputation at all costs may take at least another generation to die out.

Despite the onerous criminal defamation provisions, only two journalists in the region were jailed at year’s end. In the United States, free-lancer Vanessa Leggett was imprisoned for refusing to turn over research materials about a 1997 murder. Leggett chose jail in order to protect the confidentiality of her sources. After spending five months in jail–reportedly longer than any other journalist in U.S. history–Leggett was freed on January 4, 2002. In Cuba, Bernardo Rogelio Arévalo Padrón remained in jail for insulting President Fidel Castro Ruz and other officials.

In general, government officials seem to have found that jailing journalists is simply too politically costly. Instead, they issued suspended prison sentences and ordered journalists to pay enormous damages. The situation is particularly egregious in Panama, where an estimated one-third of all journalists are currently facing criminal defamation suits.

Some governments and corporations retaliated against the press by doling out advertising in a discriminatory fashion, a tactic that was especially effective because of the economic recession. The potentially crippling threat of losing ad revenues prompted some media outlets to avoid exposing corporate and government wrongdoing.

The combination of a slowing economy and the often-disappointing performance of state institutions–many of which are rife with corruption–has led to a declining support for democracy in the region. According to the Financial Times, a study by the private, Santiago, Chile­based Corporación Latinobarómetro found that, “Latin Americans have more faith in the Roman Catholic Church, television, and the armed forces–in that order–than in their respective presidents, police, and judiciary.”

While Latin American journalists have actively covered corruption, some are also involved in it. Complaints about corrupt reporters have been heard in countries across the continent; low salaries are often to blame.

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States had unexpected repercussions on the U.S. press, which is well protected legally and used to working with little government interference. U.S. media organizations had to push the government to provide access to information about the war on terrorism, while National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked television executives to use caution when airing tapes of Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. influence was felt globally as well. U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell asked Qatar government officials to rein in the Qatar-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera because of what the United States saw as the station’s anti-American bias.

Marylene Smeets is Americas program coordinator at CPJ. Sauro González Rodríguez is Americas program researcher; he did extensive research for this section. Bogotá-based free-lance journalist Michael Easterbrook and New York-based Trenton Daniel, a former Reuters correspondent in Haiti and staff writer for the Haitian Times, also contributed to this report. Cécile Hambye helped with the research. The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation provided substantial support toward CPJ’s work in the Americas in 2001. The Tinker Foundation is supporting CPJ’s campaign to end criminal defamation in the Americas.