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Story Publication logo August 3, 2007

A Commentary on “Latin America and Press Freedom: A Perilous Time”


Zach Dyer, for the Pulitzer Center

On July 31, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) co-sponsored an event on press freedoms in Latin America with the National Press Club. The panel included Eduardo Bertoni, executive director, Due Process of Law and former Rapporteur for Freedom of the Press, OAS; Tamoa Calzadilla, an investigative journalist for Venezuela's El Mundo and winner of the 2006 Transparency International/Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) Investigative Journalism Award; Luis Gonzales, Reporter, for Mexican daily, El Imparcial in Hermosillo, Mexico; Roger Atwood, director of communications for the Washington Office on Latin America; and Mark Weisbrot, co-director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Across Latin America strides in press freedoms have occurred, at least officially. Mexico has seen the repeal of criminal defamation desacato laws that protect corrupt officials from the press, and recently a Sunshine bill now allows journalists access to new sources of information; Colombia has seen a drop in the number of journalists killed—a concept previously thought impossible; Argentina, Chile and Peru have also experienced strides in the public impact of quality journalism.

However, violence persists as the principal threat to press freedom. While Mexican journalists in major cities benefit from these new Sunshine laws, those at the periphery continue to suffer self-censorship and threats of physical violence from drug traffickers; organized crime operates with impunity. Under President Vicente Fox's administration 31 journalists were killed. Already in the first six months of the Calderón presidency seven have been killed and another six disappeared.

In Mexico, violence against journalism has imposed self-censorship on topics like drugs and organized crime. Luis Gonzales of El Imparcial en Hermosillo, Mexico said that it is official policy at his newspaper to avoid stories that would endanger the lives of reporters and staff. El Imparcial avoids bylines as another protection for their reporters.

The paper Cambio was closed due to a grenade attack on the paper's office. Fortunately, no one was hurt. When asked about what the government was doing to help protect journalists, Luis said there was nothing they could do. As an example of police protection for journalists, Gonzales described how in May, 40 armed men in a caravan traveled more than 300 kilometers of federal highway, never spotted. When they reached there destination the kidnapped 16 people and killed seven police officers assigned to protect the journalists. Life at the periphery in Mexico has never been more dangerous.

For Venezuela, several of the panelists saw the government's interference with the media as the biggest threat, and argued the Chávez government's growing influence over the media is undermining the independence of the news. The most widely publicized example of this kind of influence was the denial of Radio Caracas Television's broadcasting license. RCTV was widely known as an opposition news source, and many felt that the denial was politically motivated. But, the station's active role in the 2002 coup against Chávez illustrates the other side of media in Venezuela: a politically polarized media environment. From a US perspective, the Venezuelan government denied the license's renewal as political retaliation; Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research countered that the station was involved in activities that would have been deemed criminal in any other democracy and that there was no surprise in the station's closing.

The case of RCTV hints at another point made by the panelists, that Latin American societies do not support critical journalism. RCTV's apologetic tone and active support of the 2002 coup; incendiary journalists working with violent organizations, like the terrorist group Shining Path in Peru that briefly operated its own newspaper; the use of media to settle scores and destabilize democratically elected governments. All are cases of journalism that is suppose to inform the public with an objective view, that instead incited violence and disinformation.

Several panelists at the event called for greater plurality in Latin American media. Tamoa Calzadilla of El Mundo said she wanted people to be able to choose their news sources and not be hindered by private or state media monopolies. I cannot help but draw the comparison between this right to choose media and the fact that this seems to be exactly the problem in the United States. It seems today, there are so many news outlets that we can be too selective about which news we hear. MSNBC, FOX News, CNN; The Weekly Standard or The New York Times: we suffer from a polarized plurality where politics determine what is news.

In Latin America, however, the main point is the need for independence in the media. Chávez's government dangles broadcast licenses to influence coverage. Other stations equally political, but apologetic to the government continue to operate. Mexico suffers from self-censorship and intimidation from state governments and organized crime. Against this backdrop, it's imperative to consider what role the Internet plays?

Approximately 15 percent of Mexicans have access to the Internet and more than 60 percent of that access is through Internet cafes. Gonzales pointed out that for the cost of the Internet the 50 million poor in Mexico can feed a family. Compared to the United States or other Western industrialized countries these numbers are dramatically low. However, the Internet offers anonymity that typical print media does not. For those with access, the Internet also allows for nascent citizen journalism.

While the panelists were skeptical about the impact of the Internet, and citizen journalism in Latin America, I have a different experience regarding the current crisis in Oaxaca, Mexico. As part of the popular movement against the state's governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, there have been innovative attempts to chronicle the experiences of the protesters and the activities of the police. Earlier this month during a protest march violence broke out when the police attempted to break up the demonstration and detained 50 people. Enter Google Video. That very day there were videos of the clash, some crudely edited with music, online. However, the importance of their presence remains; the news is available online and accessible to the world, despite its amateur presentation. A series of interviews are also posted from people missing family members, personal stories of police abuse, torture and personal opinions on the situation. While domestic consumption is hovering around 15 percent in Mexico, often times it is outside, international pressure that sets a story off.

Consider the Zapatista uprising of 1994: it was the international consumption and coverage of the event that made it a global media circus. On the eve of NAFTA's implementation indigenous rebels (the Zapatista Army for National Liberation--EZLN) took up arms in Southern Mexico against what they considered exploitative government. With NAFTA in the headlines, the time was never better for media coverage on an otherwise obscure indigenous movement. Their expert manipulation of the Internet and other "new" media resources drew attention from college students in the United States, calls to end the Mexican army's military advance from foreign governments; even pop-musicians like Rage Against the Machine took up the Zapatista banner.

Ultimately, this kind of decentralized media might not have a big impact in Mexico, but it could, inadvertently, through its consumption in the US and elsewhere over platforms like YouTube and Google Video. Internet journalism--especially at the center of the action--has the potential to provide outlets for populations who otherwise would not have access to the media and fight media fatigue by larger carriers. It has the potential to move beyond the page to inform and even organize people towards change. Addressing concerns over media consolidation, independence in the press, and violence directed against journalists, the Internet could prove a powerful tool to protect journalists and provide the kind of news RCTV, and other large networks won't. It just needs some time to grow.


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Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

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