IAPA: Press Freedom in Hemisphere ‘Seriously Diminished’

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

In a hemisphere where democracy and free elections are now the rule more than the exception, the press throughout North and South America is still increasingly hampered in doing its job effectively, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) declared Tuesday.

Wrapping up its 62nd General Assembly in Mexico City, the free-press advocacy group said journalists are under physical, legal, and political attack — assaults that increased over the past six months.

“The effectiveness of press freedom was seriously diminished during the last six months when nine journalists were murdered, and an escalation of death threats and attacks of all types have struck [scores] of media outlets and reporters all over the continent,” IAPA declared in a formal report on press conditions in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States.

IAPA noted that since its mid-year meeting six months ago, three journalists were murdered because of their work in Venezuela, three in Colombia, two in Mexico, and one in Guatemala. One journalist disappeared in Mexico and is feared dead.

Violence has become so much a part of the reporting environment in some places — especially Mexico’s U.S. border region, rural Colombia, the cities of Guatemala and Venezuela, and the entire island nation of Cuba — that enemies of a free press need only make threats to force many journalists and entire newspapers into self-censorship, IAPA’s country-by-country report says.

The murders and other unpunished violence demonstrate that “the efforts of various American nations have borne little fruit in the fight against impunity in crimes against journalists,” said Gonzalo Marroquin, publisher of the daily Prensa Libre in Guatemala City, and chairman of IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.

“All kinds of intimidation against journalists from both governments and criminal organizations have spread like wildfire,” IAPA declared.

In Colombia alone, 45 journalists in the last six months reported death threats they took seriously. In Brazil, the number was 20, including threats of kidnapping and beatings.

Newspapers in Mexico were bombed three times in the past six months.

“Legal” actions against the media have taken their toll on press freedom as well, IAPA noted. Around the hemisphere in the past half-year, it said, “the courts censored a newspaper, seized a magazine, prohibited publication of a conversation between two politicians, and forced two newspapers to publish lengthy texts as a ‘right of reply.'”

IAPA said it was equally worried by the subtler, but effective, used in ostensibly democratic nations to muffle and intimidate the press. The bully pulpit of a president too often results in journalists being targeted by real bullies.

“A custom that seems to be spreading in the Americas is the public pointing out from the summit of the executive branch (of governments) to media outlets and journalists that they are a ‘nuisance,’ states IAPA’s English-language conclusion, which was translated, sometimes a bit woodenly, from Spanish.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is well known for insulting and urging public “repudiation” of news organizations or individual journalists, rallying cries that are often followed by threats, vandalism, and occasionally violence. But the IAPA study says there are numerous examples by heads of state who do not have Chavez’s mercurial reputation.

Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner, for instance, rarely misses the opportunity in public appearances to call out, by name, journalists who have offended him. These occasions often lead to threats against journalists, according to IAPA. More worrying, the association says, is “the emergence of groups of thugs aligned to the president that, in the style of Fascist gangs of the past,” physically attack journalists or buildings housing news organizations.

Argentinean journalists at IAPA’s annual meeting said the phenomenon is so common that a slang word has been coined to describe it: “escrachan.”

The government also uses publicly funded advertising as a tool to reward or punish Argentinean newspapers and other news outlets, IAPA said.

The United States also came under IAPA criticism on several fronts.

The “war on terrorism” has been used to justify limiting, and, at times, violating “well-established press freedoms,” IAPA declared in resolutions approved by the assembly. One resolution criticizes the government for detaining journalists for long periods without charge.

U.S. courts are criticized in another resolution for ordering the jailing of reporters who refuse to reveal sources for stories. IAPA “demands the U.S. judiciary respect the role of a free and uninhibited press in a democracy,” the resolution reads.

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