The Americas

by Ana Arana

As civil societies continued to blossom in the Americas, the press took its watchdog role seriously in 1995, helping to unravel corruption, impunity and abuse of power in the region.

But in doing so, the news media became targets of retaliation from the corrupt ruling classes, politicians and criminals who often were the focus of their stories. During the year, 10 journalists were killed because of their work, and one other murder is unconfirmed; and in at least 60 other incidents, journalists were imprisoned, beaten, shot at or threatened with death.

The level of violence against the press was not as high as it had been in previous years, but the involvement of organized crime became a worrisome new trend, especially in Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Paraguay. Even in Canada, where criminal biker gangs have built up a profitable market in barbiturates, a reporter was shot in the knees by gang members angered by his coverage of their drug dealing.

In countries like Guatemala and Colombia, where criminals have acted with impunity for decades as a result of the judicial disorder caused by civil strife, many attacks against the press were carried out with the knowledge or participation of corrupt army and police officers. Guatemalan army officers known to have committed human rights violations during the civil war, for instance, have stepped into criminal rings of kidnappers, car thieves and drug traffickers. Journalists who took on these issues faced abuses that were sometimes filed away as common crimes but which ultimately were tied to their work.

A similar pattern evolved along the U.S.-Mexico border, where cases of overnment officials are the suspected assassins or intellectual authors of the killings. All the murders occurred in the interior of the country--further evidence that although a free and robust press works unabated in principal cities, provincial reporters work with little protection.

In Brazil, where four journalists were killed for uncovering corruption and environmental abuses, policemen and local government officials are the suspected assassins or intellectual authors of the killings. All the murders occurred in the interior of the country--further evidence that although a free and robust press works unabated in principal cities, provincial reporters work with little protection.

The governments of Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile tried to introduce legislation restricting the news media. In Argentina and Chile, where the press has won considerable leverage, these efforts were thwarted by public protests from influential media organizations. At year's end, the government of Colombian President Ernesto Samper, who continued to rule despite serious allegations that he received money from drug cartels, imposed press restrictions that forbade the media from carrying any statements made by leftist guerrillas, drug traffickers and common criminals.

By the end of 1995, Peru was the only country in the hemisphere with imprisoned journalists. Eight who were unfairly accused of collaborating with terrorists remain in jail, serving sentences of up to 20 years.

Good news came from Costa Rica, where the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the licensing of journalists. The decision ended a 30-year reign by the Colegio de Periodistas, which had ruled that only journalists with a Costa Rican university degree could work legally in the country. Costa Rica's licensing model is one that has been in use or under serious consideration in several other Latin American countries, and it is hoped that the court ruling will encourage other nations to reconsider the licensing issue.

In another positive development, journalists in several countries organized to combat attacks on the media. Most of these efforts were modeled after the Peruvian Institute of Press and Society (IPYS), which, since its inception in 1994, has helped reduce press abuses in Peru with timely intervention and international backing. In Colombia, a group of journalists led by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez created a press defense committee at a meeting co-sponsored by CPJ. And in Cuba, independent journalists created their own press agencies and fought for the right to publish their work outside the country since the state-run media will not accept stories from reporters blacklisted by the government.

Ana Arana was program coordinator for the Americas from December 1993 until December 1995. Before coming to CPJ, Arana covered Latin America as a free-lance correspondent for several newspapers and magazines, including the Miami Herald, the Baltimore Sun and U.S. News & World Report. She also worked as a senior correspondent for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and was a staff reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. A native Spanish speaker, Arana has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Mira Gajevic, the research associate for the Americas, researched and wrote the majority of the 1995 cases for the region. She has a master's degree in political science from the University of Mainz in Germany and has studied in Argentina. She is fluent in German and Spanish.

CPJ's work in the Americas in 1995 was funded in part by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.

Country-by-country reports of attacks on the press in this region are available at CPJ's Web site and in the print edition of this book.


Cuba: Seeds of a Free Press

by Ana Arana

Ever since the Cuban revolution 36 years ago, the Castro government has viewed the press as its mouthpiece; media censorship has been as much a part of Cuban life as food lines. But that notion is being challenged by a group of out-of-work, independent journalists who were fired from their official jobs because of irreverent thinking about the revolution and its future.

They have begun to market stories in the United States and Europe about their nation via the Bureau of Independent Press of Cuba (BPIC), a sort of clearinghouse that was founded by the journalist Yndamiro Restano, who was recently released from prison.

Independent journalism, even for overseas audiences, remains a dangerous task. In October, as President Fidel Castro wined and dined in New York City during the United Nations' 50th anniversary celebrations, Olance Nogueras Roce, a 27-year-old reporter working for BPIC, was detained four times, placed under house arrest and threatened with a prison term for spreading news that allegedly undermined "international peace." Nogueras' offense was writing a story that was widely distributed by BPIC on the potential safety problems at Cuba's Juraguas nuclear plant. Nogueras was told to leave the country or face persecution. He refused, and his colleagues fear that his case will be used as a test by the government as it attempts to control them.

Still, Restano maintains that Castro has given independent journalism some room to operate. "It is very small, but we must keep it open," he says. One thing that has changed, despite the danger, is the building of an esprit de corps among the journalists. In recent months, in an effort to create a semblance of a free press, they have formed or revitalized small, loosely organized journalists' groups with names like Havana Press and Cuba Press. And throughout the Nogueras episode, for example, Rafael Solano, who runs Havana Press, continued filing stories through BPIC about Nogueras' situation. (Solano had been at the pinnacle of Cuban journalism, writing news for Cuba's most important radio station, when he was fired in early 1995.)

Restano's release from prison in June 1995 was the catalyst for the new solidarity among independent Cuban journalists. Back in 1985, Restano had challenged the concept of state-controlled media and was banished from official journalism, forcing him to work menial jobs. He went on to found Cuba's first nonofficial journalism organization in 1987. He later founded a human rights movement seeking peaceful political change and was sentenced to prison for distributing information about it. A campaign by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom organizations and the direct intercession of Danielle Mitterrand, wife of France's former president, led to his release. Afterwards, Restano traveled in Europe and Latin America and found there was great interest in the little-known world of dissident Cuban journalists. At the annual meeting of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) on Oct. 15, leading Latin American and U.S. publishers accepted the journalists' application for membership. Several IAPA members have since published articles by the dissidents. "We believe that our support for their cause at this moment is elementary for their future survival," says David Lawrence, Jr., publisher of the Miami Herald and the new president of IAPA.

Restano and his colleagues hope that eventually they will be able to launch an independent radio station or newspaper inside Cuba. "That's the goal that keeps us going," he says. Cubans in general have lost respect for state news, but the alternatives are generally not politically independent either. Most of the population listen to Miami radio stations, which are often owned or operated by hard-line Cuban exiles. Even the U.S. government-sponsored Radio Martí has as its chairman Jorge Mas Canosa, the controversial Cuban exile who opposes any opening to Cuba while Castro is in power.

Can an independent press project survive in Cuba? Restano and his colleagues believe so. "It is the only way we can help change our system from an authoritarian government to a democratic one, without violence," he says. "A free press could help keep the good things the revolution brought to our society and get rid of the bad ones."

Ana Arana was the Americas program coordinator from December 1993 to December 1995. This special report was originally published as an article in the Columbia Journalism Review. It is reprinted with permission.

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