Attacks on the Press 2010: Americas Analysis

In Latin America, A Return of Censorship

The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional leaves white space for an image the government won't allow. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)
The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional leaves white space for an image the government won’t allow. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

By Carlos Lauría

As the preeminent political family in the northeastern state of Maranhão for more than 40 years, the Sarneys are used to getting their way in Brazilian civic life. So when the leading national daily O Estado de S. Paulo published allegations in June 2009 that linked José Sarney, the Senate president and the nation’s former leader, to nepotism and corruption, the political clan did not sit idly by. The Sarneys turned to a judge in Brasília, winning an injunction that halted O Estado from publishing any more reports about the allegations. Eighteen months later, as 2010 came to a close, the ban remained in effect despite domestic and international outcry.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

Country Summaries
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The reports in O Estado–based in part on leaked transcripts from phone conversations that were tapped during a federal investigation–charged that Sarney used his position in the Senate to award jobs and give raises to his friends and family. The judge’s ruling, an indefinite injunction issued without hearing arguments from the newspaper, became the most notorious of the numerous recent instances in which Brazilian courts have wielded censorship powers.

The Brazilian constitution guarantees free expression and prohibits censorship, but hundreds of lawsuits have filled court dockets in recent years, filed by businesspeople, politicians, and public officials who allege that critical journalists are offending their honor or invading their privacy, CPJ research shows. The plaintiffs in these cases typically seek injunctions to bar the defendants from publishing anything further about them or to remove the offending online material.

The resulting censorship was illustrated in a 2010 global report by Google, which said that Brazilian authorities had demanded that content be removed from the company’s servers on 398 occasions in the first six months of the year, twice the number of the next country, Libya. Most of the Brazilian demands were court orders, Google said. In just the weeks leading up to the October 3 presidential elections, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas found that Brazilian judges issued censorship orders in at least 21 cases. The center’s analysis found that outlets across Brazil were fined, ordered to remove content, or barred from publishing or airing specific information.

“It is blatantly unconstitutional in the first place. And in the case of O Estado, the delay in revoking the ruling is indefensible,” Ricardo Pedreira, executive director of the association of Brazilian publishers, said in a piece in the newspaper.

Brazil is among several Latin American countries where censorship is on the rise, a CPJ analysis shows. In Venezuela, a court barred local media from publishing images of crime in the run-up to the September legislative elections. The decision followed years of politicized regulatory rulings that removed critical Venezuelan broadcasters from the airwaves. In Ecuador, when a police rebellion threw the country into turmoil in September, the government of President Rafael Correa ordered radio and TV stations to halt their own reports and carry state news broadcasts only. Led by Correa, who has described the news media as “trash-talking” and “liars,” the administration has also censored Teleamazonas, Ecuador’s most critical broadcaster, on other occasions.

In vast, lawless areas of Mexico and Honduras, reporters are exercising self-censorship on major issues such as crime and corruption out of fear that they will be targeted for reprisal. Everything from gun battles in the streets to municipal malfeasance is going unexamined.

Censorship in Latin America has reached one of its highest points since most of the region underwent democratization 30 years ago, CPJ’s analysis shows. Though censorship is not of the same extent as that seen during the era of military dictatorships, when journalists were “disappeared” in large numbers and armed forces dictated what could be reported, its re-emergence is deeply worrisome.

“As someone who watched the effects of censorship in the 1970s and the 1980s, a blatant and horrible censorship, I feel that today’s censorship is much more insidious,” said June Carolyn Erlick, a former Latin American correspondent who is now publications director at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. “You never know where the censorship is coming from–through threats, attacks on the streets, new laws, or lack of access. The threats are always there and sometimes lead to self-censorship even before censorship begins.”


As part of an investigation known as “Operação Faktor,” Brazilian federal police recorded hundreds of hours of phone conversations in which Fernando Sarney, son of the Senate president, discussed business and legislative affairs. O Estado published articles based on leaked transcripts of more than 300 hours of conversations involving the younger Sarney, the focus of an ongoing federal probe. “The investigation showed a senator and close family members were negotiating jobs and benefits as if the Senate were a private company,” said Marcelo Beraba, one of O Estado‘s top editors. And the paper was just getting started on the story.
But on July 31, 2009, the Sarneys convinced Judge Dácio Vieira to grant an injunction barring the paper from covering any aspect of the investigation. Vieira said the paper would be fined 150,000 reals (US$88,000) for every story published on the case, and he extended the ban to any other outlet that reprinted O Estado‘s stories. The judge issued the ruling just a day after the Sarneys filed their motion, and without holding any substantive hearings. Unlike most civil matters, there was no underlying lawsuit, such as a defamation claim; the Sarneys sought only the publication ban. The paper has appealed the decision to the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil’s highest court, and has continued reporting on the Sarney case in hopes of one day printing its findings. A high court decision is not expected until mid-2011.

The ban generated widespread coverage in Brazilian and international news media, which may have contained the censorship. “I believe that Fernando Sarney didn’t file for an injunction against other media because of the extremely negative impact O Estado‘s ban had on public opinion,” Mariana Uemura Sampaio, an attorney for the newspaper, told CPJ. The case sparked a vigorous debate on judicial censorship in Brazil, the need to conduct in-depth reporting on political corruption, and the ethics of leaking investigative material to the press.

In Venezuela, rampant crime was among the public’s top concerns in the weeks leading up to the September congressional elections. In the absence of official statistics, watchdog groups estimate that 16,000 people are murdered annually. So when the Caracas-based daily El Nacional published an archival photo of corpses piling up in a local morgue to illustrate an August 13 front-page report on rising crime, it struck a chord with a concerned readership. It also angered the administration of President Hugo Chávez.

Chávez called the image “pornographic”–the corpses, of course, were unclothed–and a court that normally handles juvenile matters suddenly ruled that El Nacional could not publish “images, information, and publicity of any type that contains blood, guns, alarming messages, or physical aggression.” The court’s order said that such material could harm children. In a show of solidarity, the critical daily Tal Cual reprinted the morgue photograph on August 16, sparking a second, wider ruling from the juvenile court. This time, the court barred all Venezuelan print media from publishing violent images for one month.

Public outcry limited the damage, according to Ewald Scharfenberg, executive director of the press freedom group IPYS Venezuela. Facing domestic and international condemnation–including protests from the Organization of American States and the United Nations–the court lifted the media-wide ban two days later and allowed El Nacional to resume text coverage of violence. But photo prohibitions remained in place against El Nacional and Tal Cual in late year. Tal Cual referenced photos it couldn’t publish to accompany certain stories, while El Nacional redesigned its cover logo, replacing the “o” in its name with a face whose mouth is bandaged. If anything, Scharfenberg said, the episode fueled much heavier news coverage of crime and helped sharpen the public’s focus on the issue.

The censorship also highlighted the Chávez administration’s systematic campaign to stifle dissent. Authorities used their regulatory powers over the public airwaves to remove dozens of critical radio stations in 2009 and, two years earlier, to pull the license of RCTV, the country’s oldest broadcaster and one of Chávez’s top critics. Venezuelan authorities have consistently failed to conduct impartial and transparent reviews of broadcast licenses, CPJ research shows, often reaching predetermined and politically motivated decisions. In December 2010, the legislature adopted measures allowing regulators even more leeway to revoke broadcast licenses, while barring online content that “disrespects authorities.”

“The government has succeeded in gradually silencing critical voices through a campaign of selective intimidation, discriminatory use of state resources, and the closure of independent broadcast media,” said Phil Gunson, a veteran correspondent for The Economist and The Miami Herald. “The implications for Venezuelan democracy are very disturbing, since large numbers of people have extremely limited access to any voice other than that of the government.”

In Ecuador, President Correa’s administration has sought to supplant independent voices with its own. On September 30, when hundreds of police officers staged violent nationwide protests over plans to reduce bonus pay, the Communications Ministry ordered broadcasters to halt their own news reports and carry programming from the state-owned Ecuador TV. The national networks Ecuavisa, Teleamazonas, and Canal Uno interrupted their broadcasts at around 2 p.m., switching to the government station’s programming. Ecuador TV covered events from the government’s viewpoint, showing interviews with an array of high-ranking officials, local journalists said. Six hours later, the ministry lifted its order, and broadcasters returned to their own programming.

The pre-emption appeared to violate Ecuadoran law. Under a state of emergency, which the government had declared, the president and members of his administration are authorized to interrupt programming in order to broadcast official messages. But neither Correa nor the government broadcast any messages, journalists said. Instead, the decree cut off independent media coverage and replaced it with government-approved information, thus depriving Ecuadorans of diverse sources at a vital moment. (The protests were so chaotic that, at one point, rebel officers blockaded Correa inside a hospital for about 12 hours.)

In October, the president’s communications office ordered Teleamazonas to air a government rebuttal in the middle of a political talk show hosted by the critical analyst María Josefa Coronel, according to news reports. Teleamazonas, a Quito-based private network known for its harsh opposition to Correa’s policies, was itself forced off the air for three days in late 2009 after regulators found the station had “incited public disorder” with a story about the effect that natural gas exploration off southern Puná Island would have on the local fishing industry.

César Ricaurte, executive director of the local press freedom group Fundamedios, said the Correa administration’s intolerance of criticism was creating an atmosphere of intimidation and self-censorship. “Under the current climate, it has become very difficult for journalists to work free of government interference,” he said. “Official harassment against the critical press has increased substantially, and journalists are gradually indulging in self-censorship.”


Censorship was a central tenet of the dictatorships and autocratic governments that dominated the region 30 or more years ago. Armed forces killed and disappeared reporters in Argentina, creating a climate of fear that silenced the press. The Pinochet dictatorship in Chile imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared journalists while imposing strict censorship over news coverage. Brazilian army officials dictated what publishers and broadcast executives could write or broadcast. In Paraguay, Uruguay, Panama, and Haiti, the rules were simple: No independent press was allowed, and all papers were subject to seizure.

As the rest of the region changed over the past three decades, the Cuban government has retained its strict censorship regime. The country’s constitution grants the Communist Party the right to control the press; it recognizes freedom of speech and the press only “in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.” All media operate under the supervision of the Communist Party’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation, which develops and coordinates propaganda strategies. Reporters who work independently are harassed, detained, jailed, or barred from traveling. For much of the past decade, Cuba has been among the world’s worst jailers of the press. But while Cuban policies are a relic of the past, repression elsewhere in the region bodes ill for the future.

The new spike in regional censorship is linked to government abuse of legal and regulatory resources, according to Silvio Waisbord, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. While the tactics have evolved, he sees parallels between today’s censorship and that of the dictators. As in the past, Waisbord said, “the result is a chilling effect in the media that often inhibits coverage on issues of public interest.”

Another form of censorship, out of fear of violence, has reasserted its grip on the region, as organized crime, corruption, and lawlessness spread over areas of Mexico and Central America. Widespread self-censorship has been the devastating consequence of lethal violence by drug syndicates and criminal gangs. Dozens of killings and disappearances, bomb attacks, and multiple threats have led Mexican reporters and news outlets to abandon not only investigative reporting but basic coverage of crime. In areas where rival traffickers are fighting for turf, reporters have been forced to write what the criminals have ordered, or simply stop publishing. “A new word has been written into the lexicon of Mexico’s drug war: Narco-censorship,” the Los Angeles Times noted in a story in August.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas state, where the Gulf cartel dictates what can and cannot be covered, CPJ found in a September special report, Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press. Bloody cartel warfare went on for months, but news outlets ignored the story out of fear. The cartel controlled nearly every aspect of city government, journalists told CPJ, but newspapers could not report this to their readers.

“In Mexico, censorship as a result of violence is generating similar consequences as it once did in Colombia,” Waisbord said. “It’s a failure of government to guarantee the rule of law.” Self-censorship was pervasive during Colombia’s five-decade civil conflict, as journalists and editors feared reprisal from all sides. Beginning in the 1980s, at the height of the Colombian drug cartels’ power, local media joined forces to investigate and denounce criminal violence from drug lords. Both violence and self-censorship have receded in Colombia in the past decade, although it remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press.
Criminal organizations and impunity have forced the news media into silence in other Central American countries as well. A wave of deadly violence that resulted in the murder of nine reporters in Honduras, at least three in direct reprisal for their work, has led to widespread self-censorship in the local media. Honduran authorities have minimized the crimes and have been negligent in pursuing the killers. In July, a CPJ special report found that the government of President Porfirio Lobo was fostering a climate of intimidation and censorship, allowing criminals to murder with impunity.


Three decades of democratization in Latin America have not fostered all of the legal and judicial reforms necessary to protect press freedom. As lawlessness spreads throughout vast areas of the hemisphere, dysfunctional judicial systems have failed to prosecute those responsible for attacking the press, creating a climate of impunity that perpetuates the cycle of violence. Some democratically elected leaders, at the same time, have shown marked disdain for the institutions of democracy by abusing state resources to stifle dissent and silence critics. In some instances, powerful figures have used politicized courts to countermand constitutional guarantees of free expression.

The resulting rise in censorship–whether a product of government repression, judicial interference, or intimidation from criminal groups–is undermining the ability of the Latin American press to report the news. As the number of critical voices and the amount of investigative reporting are diminishing, topics of international importance such as drug trafficking, corruption, and human rights abuses are going underreported or entirely uncovered.

As an essential first step in combating the problems, the press can leave their differences behind and come together in a unified front. “Journalists can fight censorship by uniting both in national groups and across borders,” said Erlick, the former correspondent now at Harvard. In Venezuela, for example, Scharfenberg said, the press has yet to react in a unified way when critical journalists are excluded from press conferences, government buildings, or official events. “These discriminatory and arbitrary decisions can only come to an end if there is a strong reaction from a united press corps,” he said.

When organized crime groups muzzle the press in regions of Mexico, the national media can take the lead by expressing full support for their colleagues. Journalists in large urban centers can identify and widely publicize the problems affecting the regional press. That sort of high-profile coverage will draw international attention and exert pressure on the federal government to guarantee the constitutional right to free expression. And throughout Latin America, journalists can harness new and traditional technology to build public awareness that censorship not only harms the press, but deprives everyone of the right to information and free expression.

Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, is the co-author of the 2010 CPJ special report, Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press.