Attacks on the Press 2004: Americas Analysis

by Carlos Lauría

Journalists throughout the Americas came under increased attack in 2004 for reporting on political corruption, drug trafficking, and organized crime. Although democratic rights have been expanding in the region, press freedom has not always improved as a result.

In 2004, eight journalists were killed in the region for their work, according to CPJ research. Surprisingly, none were murdered in Colombia, making 2004 the first death-free year for the press corps in that war-torn country in more than a decade; in the last 10 years, more than 30 Colombian journalists have been killed for their work.

The drop in the murder rate, however, does not reflect an improvement in press freedom conditions in Colombia. Instead, local journalists say, it reflects a culture of widespread self-censorship, especially in the country’s interior. While the media criticize the government forcefully, pressure from armed groups has kept many journalists from covering the conflict there or has forced them to provide one-sided coverage.

In the rest of Latin America, journalists who reported on sensitive issues were literally hunted down. In Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Brazil, and Nicaragua, journalists were murdered in direct reprisal for their reporting, while in Haiti a foreign correspondent was killed when gunmen opened fire on demonstrators who were calling for the prosecution of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and celebrating his departure.

Even in countries like Mexico that are becoming more democratic, journalists remain vulnerable. Violence is particularly acute along the U.S. border, where two journalists were killed in 2004. In September, a CPJ delegation traveled to Tijuana for a week to investigate the June 22 murder of Francisco Ortiz Franco, an editor and reporter with the weekly Zeta who was gunned down, allegedly by drug traffickers. CPJ later issued a special report, “Free-Fire Zone,” describing how corruption and fighting between rival drug cartels had endangered the press in the border city.

The upsurge in violence across the region is directly related to governments’ lack of control over vast areas of their countries. The absence of strong state authority has left the media vulnerable to attacks by illegal armed groups in Colombia, criminal gangs in Haiti, and drug traffickers in Brazil and northern Mexico.

While weak state authority in a number of countries presents significant challenges to press freedom, the opposite can be even worse. The Cuban government continued its systematic harassment of journalists and their families in 2004. However, six of the 29 journalists imprisoned in a crackdown in 2003 were released, including writer Raúl Rivero and CPJ 2003 International Press Freedom Award recipient Manuel Vázquez Portal. The releases in late November and early December were widely viewed as a move by President Fidel Castro Ruz’s government to mend relations with the European Union, which is in the process of reviewing sanctions it imposed on Cuba because of the Castro regime’s poor human rights record. Still, 23 other journalists remained behind bars, making Cuba one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, second only to China.

Elsewhere in Latin America, imprisonment for press offenses has essentially been eliminated, although prosecutions on criminal defamation charges remain common. In August, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced a ruling overturning the 1999 conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the San José-based daily La Nación, who was convicted of criminal defamation. The Costa Rica-based court ruled that the sentence violated Herrera Ulloa’s right to freedom of expression and ordered Costa Rica to pay the reporter US$20,000 in damages and US$10,000 to cover legal fees.

The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the criminalization of defamation and suggesting that such laws should be repealed. While the judge did not say that all criminal sanctions for defamation violate international law, he indicated that civil remedies should be seriously considered as a substitute for criminal penalties.
Another decision by the Inter-American Court a month later involving a Paraguayan politician seemed to build on the Herrera Ulloa case. The court ruled that a criminal defamation conviction violated international law, and, furthermore, the court declared that the criminal proceedings themselves violated the American Convention on Human Rights because they were not “necessary in a democratic society.”

Both verdicts followed years of lobbying and legal advocacy by a large coalition of Latin American and international press and human rights groups. On September 10, Eduardo Bertoni, special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Organization of American States (OAS), convened a meeting at CPJ’s offices to discuss the Herrera Ulloa ruling. A declaration ratified by the free press and legal advocates asserted: “Criminal defamation is a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations … civil defamation laws provide sufficient redress for all those who claim to have been defamed.”

In late September, this coalition of press and human rights groups blocked plans by new OAS Secretary-General Miguel Angel Rodríguez to eliminate the office of the special rapporteur for freedom of expression. Columnist Andrés Oppenheimer wrote an influential op-ed for the Miami Herald opposing the move, saying that eliminating the position “would be a big mistake.” Created by the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1997 at the request of civil-society groups, human rights groups, and press freedom advocates, the special rapporteur position was endorsed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and 33 other presidents at the 1998 Summit of the Americas in Chile.

Rodríguez, who resigned from the OAS on October 8 amid a corruption scandal in his native Costa Rica, invoked budgetary reasons for eliminating the job. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its special rapporteur have been at the forefront of the fight against human rights abuses and have provided an essential forum for defending freedom of expression in the Americas.

Governments have not always taken criticism from the special rapporteur well. Venezuelan authorities accused the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Special Rapporteur Bertoni of bias and prejudice in their criticism of the government’s Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. Some analysts have suggested that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías was among those behind the attempt to eliminate the special rapporteur’s position.

Politicization of the press, as well as ethical lapses on the part of the media, have pushed some governments to attempt to regulate the media. The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, approved by Venezuela’s National Assembly on December 7, is the most notorious example.
The measure contains broad restrictions on freedom of expression and sets excessive penalties. For instance, television and radio stations that broadcast programs that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order” may be suspended for up to 72 hours. If a media outlet repeats the infraction within the next five years, its broadcasting concession may be suspended for up to five years. The government maintains that the law is necessary to “establish the social responsibility” of TV and radio broadcasters, but it is clear from the legislation’s broad language that it has the potential to muzzle the private media and impose censorship. Since Chávez signed the law in December, local TV channels have refrained from broadcasting footage of violent riots that occurred in the capital, Caracas, for fear of violating the regulations.

Other Latin American nations also attempted to regulate the media in 2004. In Brazil, after a series of reports in the local press detailing alleged government corruption, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sent a bill to Congress in August designed to regulate Brazilian journalism. The government claimed that the bill would have improved journalism, but the local press said it would have severely restricted them. The legislation would have established federal and regional “journalism councils” composed of journalists with the power to “guide, discipline, and supervise the practice of the profession of journalism and journalistic activity.” Disciplinary infractions would have included warnings, fines, censure, suspension for up to 30 days, and revocation of registration. In December, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, rejected the bill.

In the United States, a number of contempt rulings that could send U.S. reporters to jail for refusing to reveal confidential sources set a poor example for the rest of the world, where many governments compel journalists to cooperate with investigations–compromising their independence and blocking their ability to gather news that officials want kept secret. Governments in Latin America and elsewhere have cited these recent events in the United States to justify their harsh treatment of journalists. Venezuela’s information and communications minister highlighted the case of Jim Taricani, a U.S. journalist who was sentenced to house arrest for refusing to identify the source of information he used for a story, after the U.S. government criticized the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television.

Carlos Lauría is CPJ program coordinator for the Americas. CPJ Research Associate Sauro González Rodríguez did extensive research and writing for this section. CPJ Washington, D.C., representative Frank Smyth also contributed to this section. The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation provided substantial support toward CPJ’s work in the Americas in 2004.