Self-censorship is not new in Latin America. It has long been the scourge of journalism in a region where military dictatorships could crush media outlets that did not rein themselves in. The problem today is the extent of self-censorship as lawlessness, drug trafficking, smuggling, and organized crime continue to spread. Editors in countries such as Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil have largely abandoned investigative reporting in areas where they know state institutions such as the police and judiciary cannot or will not guarantee journalists’ safety.
The media in Colombia, caught between rebels, the army, and pro-government paramilitaries, are muzzling themselves for fear of retaliation if they publish anything that could offend any side. In Mexico, drug traffickers and gangland bosses have cowed reporters along the crime-plagued border with the United States into virtual silence. Those journalists who speak out sometimes pay with their lives. Even in Venezuela and Brazil, where the threat is less widespread, editors are ignoring stories for reasons of self-preservation. One victim of this self-imposed silence is democracy. Burning issues such as the pillaging of natural resources, trafficking in drugs and people, and corruption are deprived the oxygen of public debate.
Some reporters have begun to bridle at the restrictions, and are now more willing to talk about self-censorship and their fears than in the past.
Reporters and editors in Colombia’s lawless interior openly admit that they censor themselves in fear of physical attack from all sides in the civil war, a 2005 CPJ investigation found. CPJ’s Bogotá correspondent, Chip Mitchell, traveled to three of the most troubled areas–Arauca, Córdoba, and Caquetá–and interviewed 36 media professionals for a report titled “Untold Stories,” which was published in October.
Mitchell found that editors are pressured by those who are the targets of media investigations to censor news before publication. Probing journalists who ignore warnings are murdered, or forced to leave the country. Frequently, the police do not even investigate crimes committed against members of the press. The issues that do not get covered as a result are human rights violations, armed conflicts, political and corporate corruption, drug trafficking, and links between officials and illegal armed groups. Sometimes officials encourage self-censorship by accusing journalists of having guerrilla ties. In Saravena, Arauca province, the town’s only full-time journalist, Emiro Goyeneche, was charged with “rebellion” and accused of being a guerrilla. Goyeneche languished in prison for more than 20 months. Local journalists commend his work and believe the accusation against him is baseless.
High-ranking officials, including President Àlvaro Uribe, also try to link journalists to guerrillas. At a conference of news executives, the Colombian president urged media outlets to exercise “self-control,” and to consider barring the publication of interviews with members of illegal armed groups. Colombia’s overburdened justice system has been incapable of solving the nearly 30 cases of journalists murdered during the last decade, perpetuating a climate of impunity. In a number of extreme cases, journalists have been forced to leave their homes.
Almost every reporter in Arauca fled the province in early 2003 after two radio journalists were murdered within a nine-month period. Death threats from both rebels and paramilitaries, along with the appearance of a mysterious list naming 16 journalists as murder targets, prompted the exodus. Simple economics are also behind some self-censorship. Many media outlets are poor and understaffed. They expect their reporters to sell advertisements. Journalists are therefore less likely to produce hard-hitting stories about the businessmen and politicians whose advertising helps pay their wages.
The only bright spot in this picture is that fewer journalists are now being killed. But one of the reasons for the fall in numbers is self-censorship. As noted in a report released in September by the Organization of American States, Colombian journalists are simply not reporting on issues that could get them killed. The report, titled “Impunity, Self-censorship and Armed Internal Conflict: An Analysis of the State of Freedom of Expression in Colombia,” states that “the drop in the statistics on violence against journalists stems in part from self-censorship by journalists themselves.” The report was prepared by Eduardo Bertoni, the OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression.
Self-censorship is also rampant in northern Mexico, where drug trafficking and organized crime have turned the region into one of the most hazardous places for journalists in Latin America. Since the war between powerful drug cartels intensified two years ago, scores of reporters working along the U.S.-Mexico border have fallen silent because authorities are unable to provide even minimal protection.
In Nuevo Laredo, on the border with Texas, the daily El Mañana has stopped in-depth coverage of crime and drug trafficking. “We can’t do investigative journalism on these topics, as the state does not guarantee the security of our reporters,” explains Editorial Director Heriberto Cantú.
El Mañana, founded in 1932, has been censoring its news coverage since its editor, Roberto Javier Mora García, was stabbed to death in March 2004. CPJ is investigating whether the murder was related to his journalism. According to Cantú, violence along the border with the United States has soared in the past few years, making it impossible for Mexican journalists to report freely without fear of reprisal. “There is no freedom of expression without guarantees to exercise journalism,” says Cantú.
Reporters trying to cover crime encounter government and law enforcement officials who are openly corrupt, along with criminals who operate without constraint. As a result, reporters from El Mañana and several other Nuevo Laredo-based publications cover only official news, omitting any context or analysis that might offend. El Imparcial, a daily in Hermosillo, in the northwestern state of Sonora, has shied away from investigating drug traffickers since the disappearance in April of crime reporter Alfredo Jiménez Mota.
“After Alfredo vanished, we were shocked,” says a top editor, Jorge Morales. “I met with reporters and came to the conclusion that we will not do any kind of investigative reporting on organized crime until Alfredo’s situation is resolved.”
Self-censorship is less rampant outside Colombia and Mexico but is still practiced in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela.
Brazil remains a dangerous place for journalists, who are often targeted by corrupt politicians, criminals, and drug traffickers. Four journalists have been killed for their work in the last five years, CPJ research shows. Reporters in cities such as Brasília, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro enjoy more protection than their colleagues in isolated regions of the Amazon or in the northeast. In April, editor Maurício Melato Barth, who had spoken out against political corruption, went into hiding with his family two weeks after being attacked by gunmen. Barth, owner and editor of the bimonthly newspaper Info-Bairros in the southern city of Itapema, was attacked after publishing articles denouncing government corruption. Police believe the gunmen’s intention was not to kill, but to scare Barth into silence.
In Venezuela, the situation is more complicated because self-censorship results from legal restrictions rather than violence against the press. Private television stations have altered programming to comply with the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which was approved by the National Assembly and signed into law by President Hugo Chávez in December 2004. Elsy Barroeta, news director of Globovisión, told CPJ that the station had not restricted its coverage, but acknowledged that some colleagues were concerned about self-censorship. Barroeta said that, under the new guidelines, images of violence during street protests could be aired live but not repeated throughout the day.
The Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), a regional press organization, found that three of the most important television stations–Venevisión, Televén, and Radio Caracas Televisión–had dropped 50 percent of their opinion programs since late 2004. María Alejandra Díaz, director of social responsibility with Venezuela’s Ministry of Information and Communication, told CPJ that the law restricted only “yellow journalism.” She dismissed claims of self-censorship, saying that no one had been fined or sanctioned. Díaz said that proceedings launched by the ministry against more than 20 radio stations were strictly administrative–for not broadcasting the required percentage of Venezuelan music.
Yet overt government action is not the primary threat. Self-censorship is undermining the press in Latin America, especially in those lawless areas that most need investigative reporting and the free flow of information. Drug trafficking, crime, corruption and other issues that affect the daily lives of ordinary people are not being covered fully. This all comes at a crucial moment as voters in Mexico and Colombia prepare for elections in 2006.
Self-censorship is now so pervasive that journalists have begun to talk about it publicly. That may be a glimmer of hope not only for journalism, but also for democratic government.
Carlos Lauría is Americas program coordinator.