Nicaraguan police officers move journalists to stop their monitoring of a raid on the house of opposition leader Cristiana Chamorro in Managua, Nicaragua, June 2, 2021. (Reuters/Carlos Herrera)

A press freedom crisis unfolds in Latin America

As the number of journalists imprisoned globally for their work climbs to record highs, cases of those behind bars in Latin America remained relatively low. A total of six – three in Cuba, two in Nicaragua and one in Brazil – were in custody for their work as of December 1, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2021 prison census. But these figures don’t tell the whole story of the decline of press freedom in the region.

Year after year, the number of journalists killed in relation to their work in Latin America has surpassed the number of those in jail at the time of CPJ’s prison census. This year is no different. Though the global number of murdered journalists declined from 2020 to 2021, Mexico remains the Western hemisphere’s deadliest country for the press. As of December 1, CPJ documented nine cases of journalists killed in Mexico alone. Of those, three were clearly targeted for their work and CPJ is still investigating the motives for the killing of the other six, as well as the case of Jorge Molontzín Centlal, who has been missing since March. 

Even those numbers don’t fully capture the potential for violence that threatens the region’s journalists. This year alone, in addition to those reporters killed in Mexico, Colombia and Haiti, others in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Haiti narrowly survived shooting attacks. 

While deadly violence remains a major form of censorship in countries like Mexico and Colombia, the tactics for silencing journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean are evolving, appearing in legislation and court decisions across the region.

After nearly a decade tightening their control over the media, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, responded to nationwide protests in 2018 with a systematic crackdown on freedom of expression. The repression intensified in 2021, with authorities harassing and detaining journalists and opposition candidates, banning civil society organizations, and making quick use of new laws criminalizing critical expression and punishing outlets receiving foreign funding ahead of the controversial November presidential election that returned Ortega to power for a fourth consecutive term. 

Sports journalist and political commentator Miguel Mendoza, and Juan Lorenzo Holmann, the publisher of the national daily newspaper La Prensa, have spent months in pre-trial detention at Managua’s notorious El Chipote prison. Mendoza is facing charges of conspiracy against national integrity, while Holmann is accused of money laundering and customs fraud. Both have been denied access to their lawyers and family members. The criminal cases against Mendoza and Holmann are some of the most extreme examples of Nicaraguan’ authorities ongoing strategy to use the judicial system to intimidate and punish critical media voices.

RELATED COVERAGE: More regional analysis on CPJ’s 2021 data

Mendoza and Holmann are held alongside political prisoners, including former journalist turned presidential candidate Miguel Mora, who spent 172 days at El Chipote between 2018 and 2019 after police raided the Managua offices of 100% Noticias, the outlet he founded. Nicaraguan officials have summoned dozens of other journalists for questioning and threatened them with potential criminal investigations. Since the beginning of this year, dozens more have fled the country and gone into exile, leaving Nicaraguans with an ever-shrinking number of sources of reliable, critical information.

In Cuba, one of the few countries in the region that regularly appears on the prison census, there are currently three journalists in prison – a figure that does not account for the greater number of reporters subject to regular intimidation tactics that include short-term arbitrary interrogations and arrests, along with systematic efforts by Cuban authorities to stifle independent journalism.

As the largest protests in recent years began on July 11 and expanded to more than 50 towns and cities in Cuba, authorities detained journalists, blocked reporters from leaving their homes, and interrupted access to the internet and social media platforms, as CPJ documented.

Cuban journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, who covers social and political affairs on his YouTube channel, is in pretrial detention in a prison in Havana on accusations of contempt and enemy propaganda. Journalists Mary Karla Ares, a reporter for the community newspaper Amanecer Habanero, and Camila Acosta, the correspondent of Spanish newspaper ABC and a contributor to Cubanet, are in pretrial detention after being arrested while covering the protests. 

Cuban authorities have also sought to tighten control over digital spaces. In August, new telecommunications regulations further criminalized online content and restricted internet access in Cuba, the only country in the Americas included on CPJ’s most recent 10 Most Censored list, published in 2019.

The use of criminal investigations and repressive laws – from outdated defamation laws to increasingly creative new pieces of legislation targeting independent media outlets’ sources of financial support – remains an effective tactic to sideline and silence outspoken journalists across the region. 

In Brazil, sports and politics blogger Paulo Cezar de Andrade Prado is serving a five-month sentence for a defamation case dating back to 2016. Prado has faced multiple previous defamation suits, and was imprisoned in 2015 and 2018 following convictions for criminal defamation, according to CPJ research.

In many places, just the threat of jail time is enough to send a chilling message. 

This year, authorities in countries across the Americas, including Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, brought criminal defamation suits against investigative journalists, many of whom were reporting on allegations of corruption or misconduct by public officials.

And the trend toward legislation that can be used to silence critical journalism – in the name of defending national sovereignty, eradicating hate speech, and protecting public health – shows no sign of stopping.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, national and local leaders passed emergency response measures that restricted the media’s capacity to report freely and the public’s ability to access information, according to a report by CPJ and Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw program. Following in Nicaragua’s footsteps, officials in both Guatemala and El Salvador introduced legislation that would give the national governments more control over the activities and international funding of NGOs – including nonprofit media organizations. With many leaders across the region taking an increasingly hostile stance toward the journalists who hold them accountable, other Latin American countries may also follow this troubling path.