Hemisphere’s Latest Press-Freedom Worry: the U.S.A.

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

The 2001 Inter American Press Association annual general assembly happened to be scheduled for Washington, D.C., five weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Washington was a jittery city then, and it looked almost deserted. The empty galleries of the Hirschhorn, the hush at the National Air and Space Museum, the untrod steps of the Lincoln Memorial — everywhere seemed haunted by the absence of the tourist families and uniformed schoolchildren who throng to the capital in any season.

One night at the IAPA meeting, I struck up a conversation with a publisher of a newspaper in northwestern Colombia, a particularly hazardous part of one of the world’s most dangerous nations for journalists.

The publisher told me that far from deterring him from coming to the assembly, the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks only strengthened his resolve to go to Washington. “I had to come, in solidarity with you,” he said gravely.

In solidarity with U.S. journalists, he meant. This publisher was coming from a nation where not only publishers and editors and reporters, but also journalistic bystanders such as circulation drivers face the very real and constant threat of intimidation, kidnapping, and murder from gun thugs of the right and the left, all abetted by the corruptible and compromised forces of official security.

And yet, he wanted to stand in solidarity with journalists in the United States, where the harshest danger faced by a reporter is a stern letter to the editor or the mocking of a blogger.

These days, though, Latin American journalists are as alarmed as their U.S. counterparts about free-press developments in the land of the free and the home of the brave — especially the rash of threats to jail journalists for protecting sources.

The day after a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington upheld the contempt findings against reporters Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, the chairman of IAPA’s Freedom of Press and Information Committee issued a statement strongly protesting the decision.

“This ruling is just the latest in a series, and we seem to have entered a sad, new era of overly aggressive prosecutors demanding that reporters do their investigative work for them,” Gonzalo Marroqu?n said.

It was particularly dispiriting turn of events for the United States, Marroqu?n lamented. “That’s not only unfair it also violates the strong American tradition of press freedom enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

As editor of Guatemala’s oldest and most respected daily, Prensa Libre, Marroqu?n knows a little something about journalists on the receiving end of official aggression. Even with Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war a fading memory, journalists there face many physical hazards. A few months before the IAPA met in Guatemala last fall, for instance, a Prensa Libre photographer was beaten while covering a peasant demonstration. Just three weeks before IAPA delegates arrived, the secretary general of the National Press Society, Miguel ?ngel Morales, was assassinated while driving on a highway out of Guatemala City.

When the IAPA meets next month in Panama City, Panama, the many new and ugly episodes of violence against journalists in Mexico, Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, and elsewhere will naturally be a big focus of attention. But IAPA has now also scheduled a session “to consider precisely this issue of American prosecutors and courts demanding confidential information from journalists,” the Miami-based organization said.

IAPA will also convene a special “Emergency Forum” in Washington on April 12 to take up the issue of the nearly two dozen U.S. reporters who in the past year have faced jail or fines for resisting official pressure to reveal confidential sources or information.

These forums are held “whenever a threat to press freedom arises.” IAPA convened one on Feb. 3 in the wake of the audacious Jan. 14 murder of a radio journalist in Haiti. Before that, an Emergency Forum was occasioned by the saber-rattling against the press of the mercurial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The idea that such an emergency meeting is necessary on United States soil should give all Americans pause.


PAN-AM HIGHWAY

An occasional report on the working conditions faced by Latin American journalists.


GUATEMALA

In the week of Feb. 7, proceedings began in the trial of two former military officers on charges that they were among a group that invaded the Guatemala City home of Jos? Rub?n Zamora and held the publisher of the daily El Periodico captive along with his family and domestic staff for several hours in June of 2003. The Guatemala free-press group Center for News Reports on Guatemala (Cerigua) reported that the accused members of a now-disbanded elite presidential security unit — Eduviges Funes Vel?squez and Belter Armando ?lvarez — were identified by Zamora and other victims in the first days of the trial.


HAITI

In the third shooting attack on a Haitian journalist so far this year, unidentified gunmen fired at Raoul Saint-Louis as he stood outside the radio station Megastar on Feb. 4, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders reported. The shot hit Saint-Louis in the hand, and the journalist later went into hiding, the group said.


HONDURAS

Honduran Supreme Court Justice Maria Elena Matute filed a defamation complaint against Nelson Fern?ndez, director of the San Pedro Sula daily La Prensa, and the paper’s editor-in-chief, Luis Fuentes, over a Feb. 1 article that reported she was negotiating an agreement to step down from her position in exchange for a sum of $640,000, the El Salvador-based free-press and anti-corruption group Probidad reported Feb. 14.


MEXICO

Televisa network television journalist Jorge Cardona escaped a Feb. 7 assassination attempt unhurt when his car, parked outside his home in Monterrey, was struck by 48 bullets, the IAPA reported. The reason for the attack is unknown.


NICARAGUA

Former El Ayote Mayor Eugenio Hernandez was sentenced to 25 years in prison Jan. 28 for the November 2004 shooting death of Maria Jose Bravo, a correspondent for the Managua daily La Prensa. The journalist had been investigating election irregularities in a nearby town 60 miles east of the capital.


PARAGUAY

The Asuncion daily Diario Noticias folded Feb. 11 in what the Union of Paraguayan Journalists, which represented the paper’s 245 employees, said was an “illegal and arbitrary” closing by owner Eduardo Nicol?s Bo.

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