While press freedom is generally respected in Uruguay, the current economic crisis has damaged the media’s diversity and independence. Journalists also continue to struggle to obtain government information, even as lawmakers consider legislation to expand access to it.
Under President Jorge Batlle’s government, direct pressures against journalists and the press have diminished as compared with previous administrations. But according to the journalists’ association Asociación de la Prensa Uruguaya (Association of the Uruguayan Press), the protracted economic crisis has forced news organizations to fire many journalists. Some of those who remain employed have resorted to self-censorship to avoid losing their jobs.
In a country where many publications depend almost exclusively on government advertising, journalists and media owners remain concerned that state agencies and enterprises continue to withhold advertising from critical media outlets, while rewarding those that provide favorable coverage. Several news organizations have closed during the last two years, and journalists speculate that more may soon fold, further limiting the diversity of views.
In October, the Chamber of Deputies approved a right to information bill that was first introduced in 1996. The measure, which the Senate was considering at year’s end, would guarantee access to government documents, as well as the right to access, without a court order, public records containing information about oneself. Such legislation is urgently needed in Uruguay, where government agencies are notorious for refusing to provide even basic information to the public. Some journalists doubt that the Senate will pass the law quickly, faulting both politicians for their lack of interest and journalists’ organizations for not raising awareness about the legislation’s importance.
Radio broadcasters have long been divided over the issue of community stations; currently, dozens of them operate without permits, despite having applied for them years ago. While commercial stations claim that community stations interfere with their frequencies, community broadcasters argue that they cannot afford to buy frequencies, which are granted through auctions. In October 2001, the country’s telecommunications regulatory agency, URSEC, convened talks on the issue. In November 2002, URSEC sent a proposal to the executive aimed at creating a legal framework in which community stations can operate. Officials were still considering the proposal at year’s end.
Uruguay still has several laws that restrict freedom of expression, including desacato (disrespect) statutes, which criminalize insulting public officials. In addition, several articles in the Penal Code and the Uruguayan Press Law prescribe prison terms for defamation, though CPJ has not documented any recent cases of journalists jailed under these provisions.