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Overview of The Americas
by Joel Simon

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Over the past decade, journalists have played a vital role in the democratic development of Latin America. Through probing, critical, and aggressive reporting, they have brought a measure of political accountability to a region long known for its autocratic regimes. But they have also paid a terrible price: Their independent reporting has engendered a violent backlash costing the lives of 117 journalists since 1989. In the last few years, journalists have fought back by publicizing attacks against their colleagues and forming national press freedom organizations. In the process, they have not only made it safer to practice their profession, but also have made press freedom in Latin America an issue of international concern and a yardstick by which other basic freedoms are measured.

The growing public support for journalists has not stopped the violence, but it has substantially changed it. During 1998, eight journalists in Latin America were killed in the line of duty. (A Canadian newspaper publisher, Tara Singh Hayer, was murdered in Vancouver in November by radical Sikh separatists angered by his reporting on local issues.) CPJ continues to investigate the murders of another eight journalists. While the numbers have not declined significantly from the previous year, when CPJ documented ten murders in the region, what has changed is the murdered journalists' prominence.

The 1997 murders of such well-known journalists as José Luis Cabezas in Argentina and Gerardo Bedoya Borrero in Colombia fueled widespread public protest; the 1998 murders of Manoel Leal de Oliveira in rural Brazil and Luis Mario García Rodríguez from a small-circulation newspaper in Mexico City went largely unnoticed. With the notable exception of Philip True, the Mexico correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News who was murdered by local Indians while on a reporting and hiking trip in the Sierra Madre Mountains, most of the journalists killed in 1998 were small-town or rural-based reporters who appear to have been targeted by corrupt local officials.

The public outcry over the murder of prominent journalists has made it safer for those working for major publications. But substantial risks remain for reporters who work for less visible outlets. The reasons are complex, stemming from the economic gulf that separates thriving cities from impoverished small towns in most of the region. And the disparity is growing as Latin America's large urban centers become integrated into the global economy, while many rural areas are left behind. Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than Brazil, where reporters for major media outlets in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have resources and power that rival their counterparts in Washington and New York. Meanwhile, in impoverished areas such as Mato Grosso do Sul, journalists struggle to do their job largely unsupported by their colleagues.

Other obstacles persist. Politicians use promises of government concessions and personal friendships with media owners to try to influence coverage. More significant, journalists who push the limits of press freedom know that they risk prosecution under anachronistic press laws. For example, judicial police in Panama tried to arrest journalist Herasto Reyes in December on criminal defamation charges stemming from an August 27 article in which he linked President Ernesto Pérez Balladares to a financial scandal. Reyes' colleagues from the daily La Prensa surrounded Reyes and physically blocked the police from carrying out the arrest.

In September, two Chilean journalists were briefly arrested under the country's Pinochet-era State Security Law. In other countries, politicians accused of corruption and malfeasance, alleged drug traffickers, and military officials accused of human rights violations have used criminal defamation laws to stifle investigative reporting or punish journalists who have exposed wrongdoing.

Such laws pose a threat not only to journalists, but also to the development of strong democratic institutions. In nearly every country in the Americas, defamation laws, often promulgated by military dictators or dating from the turn of the century, define libel as a criminal offense punishable by prison terms. Under most of these statutes, truth is not a defense, reporting on criminal investigations is not privileged, and journalists can be compelled to reveal their sources. In the case of an error made during a good-faith effort to report an issue of public interest, a printed correction does not offer protection from prosecution. Many countries also have laws that equate questioning the honor of a public official to an attack on the state. Mexico's defamation law, written in 1917 just after the revolution, is typical of these statutes. It defines defamation as "hurtful communication made against a person, whether true or false, determined or undetermined, that can cause that person dishonor, discredit, prejudice, or expose them to the ridicule of another person." Those judged guilty of such an offense can be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

These laws criminalize behavior that is at the very heart of the journalistic profession: Because a functioning democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas, journalists should never face criminal prosecution because of material they publish. In instances where a plaintiff can demonstrate malice -- in other words, that the journalist knew or should have known that the facts in a story were wrong at the time of publication -- civil litigation should provide adequate redress for the aggrieved party.

With support from the Tinker Foundation, CPJ has launched a campaign to eliminate criminal defamation laws from the Americas. As part of our documentation for this project, we have included a short section on criminal defamation laws in the descriptions of countries where such statutes have been actively used to stifle independent reporting.

An important development for press freedom in the Americas during 1998 was the creation in April of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). CPJ supported the initiative, which was unanimously ratified by the heads of state attending the Summit of the Americas meeting in Santiago, Chile. In November, Santiago Canton, an Argentine lawyer, was selected to fill the post. He will be responsible for monitoring press freedom throughout the Americas, and alerting the commission to violations of the provisions of inter-American law that guarantee freedom of expression.

The overall situation for the press in Latin America continues to improve. With the exception of Cuba, the Latin American press operates more freely and with fewer restraints than at any time in its history.

Joel Simon worked as a Mexico-based associate editor for Pacific News Service before joining CPJ in 1997. He is the author of Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge (Sierra Club Books, 1997), and is a frequent contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Research assistant Marylene Smeets, who contributed much of the documentation for this section and wrote several country descriptions, worked with the U.N. Mission for the Verification of Human Rights in Guatemala (MINUGUA) from 1994 to 1997. She is a graduate of the University of Amsterdam and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Relations at The Johns Hopkins University.
The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation provided substantial support toward CPJ's work in the Americas in 1998. A two-year grant from the Tinker Foundatin is supporting CPJ's campaign to eliminate criminal defamation from the Americas.
Research for the report on press freedom groups in Latin America was made possible by support from the Freedom Forum.