By: Mark Fitzgerald
When Guatemalan President Oscar Berger bounded onto the stage to address delegates at the Inter American Press Association’s (IAPA) annual General Assembly Monday, Oct. 25, he greeted Jos? Rub?n Zamora and Gonzalo F. Marroqu?n with warm hugs.
Barely a year ago, gunmen apparently linked with the state security force run by officials of Berger’s predecessor burst into Zamora’s home, tied up his wife and family and domestic help, and beat the director and editor of the Guatemala City daily elPeri?co. At one point, the invaders held a gun against Zamora’s head and told him he would be executed.
And only eight weeks before, in a notorious Aug. 31 incident at a ranch occupied by squatters, the Guatemalan National Civil Police assaulted a photographer who works for the sister paper of Prensa Libre, where Marroq?n is editorial director.
So it goes with the press in Latin America: Newspaper editors are embraced by presidents as proof of the democratizing of the region — and brutalized by official and unofficial forces who act with the near-certain knowledge that they will never be called to account for their violence.
“The struggle for freedom of the press,” IAPA declared in a statement approved by delegates at the conclusion of the assembly, “suffered setbacks in many countries of the hemisphere during the past six months, largely at the hands of criminals operating with impunity, repressive regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, and government officials seeking restrictive legislation.”
Every six months, IAPA surveys the working conditions of the press throughout the hemisphere, and this time around it found itself weighing relatively few positive developments — such as the repeal of so-called “insult” laws that criminalized publishing even truthful information about certain government officials and institutions — against a darkening environment for journalists.
Since the mid-year meeting last March in Mexico, for instance, nine journalists and a newspaper circulation manager were assassinated — three of them in Mexico. “Particularly odious,” the IAPA said, was the murder of Francisco Ortiz Franco, editor of the weekly Zeta in Tijuana. Five drug cartel members have been arrested for the June 22 drive-by killing — which occurred while Francisco Ortiz was working on an IAPA task force investigating the earlier assassination of two other Mexican journalists, Hector Felix Miranda and Victor Manuel Oropeza.
“It was impunity on impunity,” said Jack Fuller, the Tribune Publishing president who concluded his term as IAPA president at the Guatemala meeting.
Following are some summaries of the country-by-country surveys and resolutions adopted at the IAPA meeting. The full text of all the reports can be seen on IAPA’s web site: www.sipiapa.org. (I attended the Guatemala meeting as a delegate representing E&P, and, as a resolutions committee member, I wrote a small section of the country report on the United States.)
In response to requests from members of the Argentine Senate, IAPA will send a delegation to meet with legislators about a freedom of information bill now under debate and to discuss press-freedom issues such as the prosecution of the Rio Negro newspaper for not revealing sources in its investigative reports on bank fraud. IAPA said the persecution “has taken place in the framework of a broader series of attacks” against the paper.
President Carlos Mesa, who came to power a year ago after a popular uprising forced out Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada, established by decree a freedom of information and government transparency law that has worked out well, despite some restrictions such as a gag on prosecutors providing information about criminal investigations.
Two radio journalists were killed in the last six months. Jos? Carlos Ara?jo, whose show concentrated on police news, was killed April 24 by a killer who confessed to police he didn’t like hearing his name on the show. Police said the July 11 murder of Jorge Louenco do Santos was likely commissioned by local politicians criticized on his program.
A resolution urged the government to withdraw a proposed law forming a “Federal Journalism Council” that would allow only those licensed by the council to work as journalists and would have “the power to guide, discipline and oversee the profession and practice of journalism. “The proposed law profoundly undercuts freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and therefore democracy itself,” IAPA declared.
The editor of El Periodista was threatened with death, and the newspaper was the victim of a bizarre burglary in which only computers with financial and accounting data were stolen.
Death threats are ubiquitous, and in the past six months at least one journalist was forced to flee the country. But the only person murdered for something that appeared in a newspaper was a vendor, not a journalist. Jaime Alberto Madero Mu?iz, a popular newspaper vendor in Santa Marta, capital of the Magdalena department, was shot fatally three times while hawking copies of the local paper El Informador. He had been warned by a right-wing paramilitary member not to shout out the paper’s headline about the arrest of six other paramilitary troops.
Cuba continues to imprison 32 independent journalists rounded up in a mass arrest of dissidents in March 2003. They live “under degrading conditions of poor nutrition and hygiene, [and are subjected] to physical and psychological abuse and acts of harassment and intimidation that are also directed at their families,” IAPA said. “Cuba is the only place in the hemisphere where there exists no freedom of the press nor assembly,” Fuller said. “It is an outrage that in 2004 this exists.” Among those sentenced to prison terms ranging up to 27 years is Ra?l Rivero, who was re-elected to the IAPA board of directors at the Guatemala meeting. He is serving a sentence of 20 years.
In May, the Ecuadorian Congress passed a “Transparency and Access to Information Law” that was hailed by journalists but that has not been enforced chiefly because of President Lucio Guiti?rrez’s hostility towards newspapers. In a memorable harangue Sept. 16, he accused El Universo, El Comercio, and two television stations of lying and reporting “half-truths.” His press secretary threatened to force reporters to testify under oath about their “half-truths.”
With a former radio broadcaster and station owner, El?as Antonio Saca, as the nation’s president, press conditions have improved considerably, with journalists gaining easy access to the government offices and the president himself. In a speech at the IAPA meeting, Saca condemned the practice of taking journalists to court to learn the names of confidential sources.
“The climate for press freedom has improved markedly, especially in the capital city Port-au-Prince, since President Jean Bertrand Aristide left power on Feb. 29,” IAPA said.
“The unrestricted freedom once enjoyed by the media has been gradually compromised,” IAPA said. At least three journalists have been hauled into court on criminal libel charges in the last half-year. But the biggest peril Honduran journalists face are from drug traffickers and the vicious street gangs known as maras.
In addition to the assassinations of three journalists noted above — bringing to 13 the number of journalists killed along the border with the United States in the last decade — Mexican newspapers suffer from official intimidation from some local and state governments. In the Chiapas state, the Tuxtla Guiti?rrez newspaper “has been unjustly persecuted,” IAPA said, with a campaign of harassment that includes the jailing of family members of Editor Conrado de la Cruz.
An appeal to block Law No. 372, establishing the “Nicaraguan Journalists Association,” remains on appeal before the Supreme Court. The law would require a license from this quasi-governmental body to practice journalism, which would also establish requirements for executives at both state-run and private media organizations. Those working without a license would be subject to jail.
Government officials are interfering with the free practice of journalism, either openly with force or indirectly through courts and legislation. Attempts to pass laws allowing greater access to public information have been stymied, libel suits asking ruinous judgments are common and death threats are increasing — including one allegedly issued by the police in April against two journalists from the Ciudad del Este newspaper Noticias. Samuel Rom?n, a radio journalist who lived in Paraguay and worked just across the border in Brazil, was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he was on his way home April 21.
The Feb. 14 murder of radio journalist Antonio de la Torre Echeand?a in the city of Yungay may have been cracked with the October arrest of a suspect, and the issuing of an arrest warrant against the mayor of Yungay and his daughter. The newspapers Correo, La Republica, and El Comercio were separately sued for libel by claimants demanding enormous judgments.
An IAPA resolution condemned the conduct of the Valerie Plame investigation federal Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson and special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. It urged “the American authorities not to utilize the media as an extended arm of their law enforcement activities by compelling them to reveal their privileged information and thus (avoid) the ‘chilling effect’ detrimental to freedom of the press as guaranteed under the First Amendment.”
Recent court rulings upholding the constitutionality of a so-called “right of reply,” and suggesting greater self-censorship by news organizations have hampered press freedoms. The Supreme Court “made a veiled suggestion to exercise a form of prior restraint,” IAPA said, “by warning that journalists ‘must give careful consideration before publishing a news item or story, as they expose themselves to the possibility that the right of reply may be exercised by those named individuals who feel they have been wronged.'”
IAPA’s resolution on Venezuela is blunt: “In Venezuela there prevails a systematic, widespread government policy aimed at restricting the freedom of speech and of the press, and penalizing the dissident opinions of journalists and citizens.” The government and the Supreme Court, it adds, “maintain a contemptuous, openly defiant stance” against international accords proclaiming freedom of press and expression. President Hugo Ch?vez often uses his weekly radio and TV program to attack journalists by name as “unpatriotic.” The defense minister accused the news media of being “enemies” of the government who support armed paramilitaries.