A Falling Barometer for Press Freedom in Latin America

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Foreign press cartoonists and Samuel Daina, a political refugee housed at Paris'

Foreign press cartoonists and Samuel Daina, a political refugee housed at Paris' journalists' house, draws on a fresco outside Paris city hall for international press freedom day.

Every year journalists around the world mark May 3rd as World Press Freedom Day.  For the Overseas Press Club of America, however, it’s always World Press Freedom Day. How a nation treats its journalists is an excellent barometer of the health of its democracy.  In hopeful moments we imagine that the barometer’s long-term forecast is sunny.  But we live in the real world and know things can darken for our colleagues in remarkably short periods of time.

There’s no better example than Latin America, which entered the 21st Century looking as if it had finally shed its tradition of authoritarianism and civil upheaval.  Then in the early 2000s the Overseas Press Club’s press-freedom committee found itself regularly sounding the alarm on behalf of Mexican journalists.  That work turned out to be an early warning for what has happened ten years later, when Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist.

Violence and drug-related gang warfare have made life for Mexican reporters more like working in a permanent war zone than reporting from one of the world’s established democracies.  Only last week the committee extended its ongoing conversation with Mexican President Felipe Calderon about the threats to our colleagues there.  So far in 2010 five Mexican journalists have been murdered.  Two others have disappeared (one of them possibly at the hands of Mexican police).  One of the most recent murder victims, Enrique Villicaña Palomares of La Voz de Michoacan, was found with his throat cut in Morelia, five days after he was reported kidnapped.  The Michoacán State Justice Department failed to take any action after being notified that threats had been made against Villicaña.

As the Overseas Press Club told President Calderon, if the reports of inaction are true then such indifference is inexcusable in a democratic society—especially since the threats against Villicaña were made just days after another Michoacán journalist, Ramon Angeles Zalpa of Cambio de Michoacán, went missing.  Angeles has not been heard from since.
“When journalists are killed for doing their jobs,” we told President Calderon, “the result is self-censorship by other journalists and the loss of information that is vital to any democracy.”

President Calderon can at least be counted as an ally of democratic institutions.  In Honduras, by contrast, it is now very dangerous to report news and opinion in opposition to the government of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who was elected president in January after the previous government was dissolved at gunpoint last June.

The month of March was a catastrophic one for our Honduran colleagues, with a total of five reporters murdered that month alone.  Two more were murdered in April.  No arrests have been made in any of these cases.  All the murdered share in common a history of publishing and broadcasting that put them at odds with the president’s party or its friends.

The speedy unraveling of a previously freewheeling press in Honduras is shocking to witness.  According to our associates at ARTICLE 19, these attacks on Honduran journalists are of a piece with other assaults on human-rights and opposition activists since the middle of 2009.

In Venezuela, by contrast, President Hugo Chavez relies less on brutality and more on bureaucratic and political intimidation.  Since taking office in 1999 Chavez has taken one step after another to repress Venezuela’s once-thriving free press, notably when he took RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest TV station, off the air in 2007 and awarded its channels to a public TV station that could be counted on to speak for the government.  Since then he has kept up a steady stream of “administrative proceedings” against Globovision, Venezuela’s most important commercial broadcaster.  Last August the Chavez government abruptly shut down 34 radio stations without warning for failing to keep their paperwork up to date with the Ministry for Public Works and Housing.

One may grow hardened to the abuse—often horrifying—of journalists in Russia and China.  Threatening troublesome reporters is what they do there, and have done for a long time.  But Latin Americans have recent memories of good reporters doing work essential to the cultivation of democratic cultures, which is why it makes one angry to witness the rapid transition to open hostility in countries like Mexico, Honduras and Venezuela. The presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia are following Chavez's example and treating the press as the enemy, with the same sort of bureacratic and legalistic attacks.

The work of any nation’s courageous journalists should be more than protected.  It should be celebrated as the cornerstone of civil society, and not just one day a year.

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