Attacks on the Press 2002: Americas Analysis

Economic and political turmoil throughout Latin America in 2002 had profound implications for the region’s press. Sharp decreases in advertising revenue bankrupted many media outlets, while the failure to consolidate democratic reforms left the media vulnerable to legal and physical assault. Five journalists were killed in Latin America in 2002 for their work.

The growing weakness of traditional political parties created another kind of danger for the media: In Venezuela, the press abandoned any show of neutrality and became a full-fledged political opposition. President Hugo Chávez Frías responded by increasing his already charged rhetoric against the media. In some cases, both Chávez supporters and opponents targeted reporters, photographers, and cameramen. During the April 11 coup, Jorge Ibraín Tortoza Cruz, a photographer for the daily 2001, was shot while covering violent clashes between opposition demonstrators and government supporters in the capital, Caracas. He later died from his wounds. In May, CPJ Americas program research associate Sauro González Rodríguez traveled to Caracas to investigate the situation and published a special report, titled “Cannon Fodder.”

Three journalists were killed in Colombia, where leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces routinely target the press. CPJ is still investigating the slayings of five other Colombian journalists whose deaths may have been related to their work. The government’s failure to prosecute these crimes has led many journalists to leave the country, perpetuating a climate of impunity in which journalists are targeted with threats, intimidation, kidnapping, and murder.

After winning May presidential elections on a platform of security, anti-corruption, and zero tolerance for violence, Álvaro Uribe Vélez took office in August. Human rights and press freedom groups warned that his hard-line stance could create further abuses and predicted that the conflict would likely escalate. After investigative journalist Ignacio Gómez aired a story on a popular television news show linking Uribe to drug traffickers, the president argued “a free press is one thing, and a press at the service of straw men and shady deals is another thing.”

Haitian journalists also continue to confront considerable danger, and several reporters went into exile. On December 25, two gunmen attacked the house of Michèle Montas, the news director of Radio Haïti-Inter, killing a security guard. Montas is the widow of Jean Léopold Dominique, a prominent journalist and radio station owner who was killed on April 3, 2000. Montas has harshly criticized the slow progress of the investigation into her husband’s killing.

In North America, the increasingly aggressive measures taken by the U.S. government to shield its activities from public scrutiny, including efforts to curtail the press’s ability to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act, set a poor example for the rest of the hemisphere at a time when journalists in Latin America have made headway in their battle for greater government openness. In an important victory in June, Mexican president Vicente Fox signed the country’s first freedom of information act, the Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information.

Elsewhere, economic collapse fueled growing social crises. Argentina, South America’s most enthusiastic convert to U.S.-supported free market policies, suffered currency devaluation, political turmoil, and riots in 2002. The collapse of Latin America’s third-largest economy brought people to the streets to protest government actions, fomenting attacks against journalists who covered the demonstrations and exposed corruption among politicians and businessmen. All these factors have fostered a climate of fear in the run-up to the 2003 presidential elections.

While most of the political parties in the region are suffering from a loss of popular support, Brazil’s democracy has matured, and its institutions have been fortified by the victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the October presidential elections. But while journalists work in an atmosphere relatively free of government persecution, drug traffickers continue to threaten the press. The brutal murder of Tim Lopes, an award-winning investigative reporter with TV Globo, highlighted the serious risks that journalists face when covering organized crime.

The last decade of democratization in Latin America has not always fostered the legislative and judicial reforms necessary to institutionalize freedom of expression across the region. Many countries have colonial-era provisions known as desacato (disrespect) laws that penalize statements insulting the honor and dignity of public officials. Criminal defamation laws remain on the books in most countries despite a 2000 declaration by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that “[t]he protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official….” This Washington, D.C.-based commission, which is the human rights monitoring body of the Organization of American States, has been an essential forum for defending freedom of expression in the Americas. In March, Argentine lawyer Eduardo A. Bertoni replaced Santiago A. Canton, who became IACHR executive director, as the commission’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression.

While criminal defamation prosecutions are common throughout the region, Panama has perhaps Latin America’s most pernicious legal environment for the press. Almost half of Panamanian journalists face criminal libel charges, the majority of them filed by public officials angered by the media’s exposure of political corruption.

The excessive concentration of media ownership in a few powerful conglomerates also threatens press freedom and undermines pluralism. Assisted by liberalized and privatized markets, a handful of Latin American media groups–frequently tied to ruling political parties–have built prosperous multimedia empires, concentrating private interests at the expense of wider political and social goals. The lack of anti-monopoly legislation has made many journalists and press freedom groups pessimistic about the future. News coverage is often based on the ideological and economic views of media owners who see their outlets as a means to obtain political power. At the same time, the use of government advertising to reward or punish media outlets seriously affects independent journalism, thus damaging freedom of expression.

Carlos Lauría is CPJ’s program coordinator for the Americas. CPJ’s Americas program research associate, Sauro González Rodríguez, did extensive research and writing for this section. CPJ’s deputy director, Joel Simon, Bogotá-based free-lance journalist Michael Easterbrook, and Trenton Daniel, a spring 2003 Pew International Journalism Fellow, also contributed to this section. The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation provided substantial support for CPJ’s work in the Americas in 2002. The Tinker Foundation is supporting CPJ’s campaign to eliminate criminal defamation laws in the region.