Attacks on the Press 2003: Americas Analysis

While violence and repression against the press continued unabated and even increased in some countries, public trust in journalists and the press suffered in much of the Americas, jeopardizing support for reforms of archaic press laws and opening the door for governments to take a more confrontational approach with the media.

In 2003, seven journalists were killed in the region for their work, according to CPJ research, compared with five in 2002. Colombia, where violence amid a four-decade civil war is a major problem, remained Latin America’s most dangerous country for the press. While journalists in the capital, Bogotá, are sometimes targeted, those working in rural areas face the greatest risks; the four Colombian journalists killed for their work in 2003 all came from the provinces.

Taking advantage of the fact that international attention was focused on the U.S.-led war with Iraq, the Cuban government launched a massive attack against the independent media and political dissidents. Twenty-nine journalists were arrested, convicted, and given prison sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years. The crackdown–which made Cuba one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, second only to China–was the culmination of years of repression and intimidation.

Although the press is still one of Latin America’s most trusted institutions, popular credibility has dropped significantly. According to an October report by the Chile-based polling firm Latinobarómetro, popular confidence in Latin American television–the region’s main source of information–has dropped 14 percentage points, from 50 percent in 1996 to 36 percent this year. Years of economic stagnation, ethical lapses, and politicization of the media in some countries have increased the public’s skepticism of democratic institutions in general, and the press in particular.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Venezuela, the clearest example in the region of how intolerance in a polarized society can multiply risks for journalists. The charged rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías against the press, combined with the active political role that the media have taken in opposing his government, have made local journalists extremely vulnerable to physical attacks from all sides.

In both Guatemala and Haiti, the private media became powerful sources of government opposition in 2003. Many Haitian radio stations are openly partisan and broadcast either pro-government or pro-opposition reports. According to CPJ research, the murders of two Haitian journalists in recent years, the flight of dozens of others into exile, as well as ongoing attacks against those still working in the country, have made Haiti one of the most violent places to practice journalism in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Colombia.

In Guatemala, the government has accused the media of serving the interests of local businessmen. In the months preceding Guatemala’s November 9 presidential elections, CPJ documented an increased number of press freedom abuses, ranging from anonymous threats to physical attacks. CPJ fact-finding missions to Haiti and Guatemala confirmed the dangerous climate of threats and intimidation against the local press in both countries and demanded that both governments send a clear message to their societies that attacks and threats against journalists will not be tolerated.

The growing concentration of media ownership also poses problems across the region. Media conglomerates in many countries have limited choices for consumers, while owners–who often see their media holdings as tools to obtain political power–have relationships with either politicians or corporations, which can distort coverage.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved new media ownership rules in June, allowing television broadcasters to expand their reach and lifting a ban that prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. Critics argue that the decision will stifle different voices, pointing as an example to the consolidation in radio ownership after rules in that sector were modified in 1996. In September, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to overturn the FCC decision, but the House had yet to pass a similar measure by year’s end, and President George W. Bush has promised to veto any such legislation.

In Mexico and Brazil, media conglomerates such as Televisa and Globo, respectively, have consolidated their control, particularly in broadcasting, though they also own companies in print, music, and radio. Grupo Clarín in Argentina, Organización Carlos Ardila Lule and Grupo Empresarial Bavaria in Colombia, and Grupo Cisneros in Venezuela have become powerful forces, clearly dominating the media markets in their countries. Elsewhere in Latin America, media outlets are typically controlled by a handful of family-owned companies that are frequently tied to political parties or corporations.

Global corporations have also entered many markets in Latin America, partnering with local conglomerates. Two Spanish corporations, Telefónica and Grupo Prisa, have become a presence in the region by acquiring media outlets in several countries. Grupo Prisa has purchased most of the shares of Caracol Radio in Colombia, and Telefónica owns television and radio stations throughout the region.

In the United States, concerns about potential terrorist attacks increased government secrecy, with profound implications for the press. A report by the Washington, D.C.based Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press describes how the federal government is limiting public access to terrorism and immigration proceedings and subverting the intent of the 1974 Freedom of Information Act by routinely denying information requests.

While no journalists in the Americas outside Cuba are currently incarcerated, a number of short detentions in 2003 highlighted the pressure that journalists in the region continue to face from criminal defamation laws. Legislatures remain reluctant to repeal these archaic laws, and public figures who benefit from them have successfully blocked reform. In Panama–despite stated commitments from President Mireya Moscoso to repeal the country’s remaining “gag laws”–almost half of the journalists there face criminal libel charges, the majority of them filed by public officials angered by the media’s exposure of corruption.

In a development that could have profound implications for press freedom and the campaign to eliminate criminal defamation from the Americas, the Costa Ricabased Inter-American Court of Human Rights agreed in February 2003 to hear a criminal defamation case involving a Costa Rican journalist convicted of libeling a diplomat. Journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, of the daily La Nación, was convicted of defamation by a Costa Rican court in 1999. Herrera Ulloa originally took his case to the Washington, D.C.based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that his right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under the American Convention on Human Rights, had been violated. The commission sought a friendly settlement with the Costa Rican government but was unable to resolve the dispute. The commission then referred the case to the Inter-American Court. A decision is expected in early 2004, and any ruling will be binding on the Costa Rican government.

If the court determines that criminal defamation laws violate the freedom of expression guarantees contained in the American Convention, such a ruling could set a broad precedent for the entire region.

Even though 2003 has been a difficult year for the region’s press, many countries have adopted freedom of information laws, important steps toward guaranteeing citizens’ access to information. In Mexico, for example, the government finally began to enforce the Federal Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information on June 12. In practice, however, access often remains restricted by the laws’ ambiguous language, overly bureaucratic procedures, and the influence of politicians responsible for releasing information.

In some countries, the media were able to report on corruption and official malfeasance without reprisal. In Argentina, where the press continues to struggle with economic difficulties, an interview published in December in TXT magazine shed light on a notorious corruption scandal after a former congressional official described how he personally delivered a US$5 million bribe to a number of senators at the request of then President Fernando De la Rúa in April 2000. In another encouraging development, the Chilean press reported freely about the abuses of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship on the 30th anniversary of the 1973 military coup that brought him to power.

Carlos Lauría is CPJ’s program coordinator for the Americas. CPJ’s Americas research associate, Sauro González Rodríguez, did extensive research and writing for this section. CPJ’s deputy director, Joel Simon, also contributed to this section. The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation provided substantial support toward CPJ’s work in the Americas in 2003. The Tinker Foundation is supporting CPJ’s campaign to eliminate criminal defamation laws in the Americas.