IAPA: Press Freedoms Are Retreating in Latin America

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Like many of the hemisphere’s limping national economies , freedom of the press in the Americas has stopped growing, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) concluded at its mid-year meeting last week in Los Cabos, Mexico.

“Internal conflicts, bitter political struggles, fragile economies, fears of terrorism and – – in Cuba and Venezuela – – outright repression or threats of it, have taken a toll on press freedoms throughout the hemisphere,” stated IAPA’s survey of press developments in the last six months.

“The dangers confronting press freedom seem to be increasing in most countries of the hemisphere,” the Miami-based group added. “Press freedoms also experienced chills in countries with exemplary histories. Tough economic climates — devalued currencies compounded by high taxes and regulatory targeting — constrained the abilities of some news organizations to operate as freely as they might. And fears of terrorism have restricted media access to information in the United States and other countries.”

IAPA noted that since it last met in Chicago six months ago, seven journalists have been murdered, almost all “for motives clearly connected to their profession.” In a worrying development, IAPA said, those targeted for assassination are no longer necessarily the most aggressive reporters or outspoken commentators — but journalists going about their ordinary business.

Physical attacks and intimidation of journalists occurred routinely during the period — and were even encouraged by leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, IAPA said. A lengthy country report on Venezuela documented what IAPA bluntly called Chavez’s “hatred of the free press.” The association voted a resolution expressing “its dismay over the massive and systematic violations of the rights to life, integrity and personal liberty that Venezuelans, and especially journalists and other press workers, suffer.”

IAPA singled out Cuba for especially harsh criticism. “Without question, the repression of free expression is in a separate league in Cuba, where Fidel Castro has showed no change in his determination to prevent independent journalists from operating,” it said. IAPA’s meeting came just days before the one year anniversary of the March 18 mass arrest of writers, librarians, economists and other dissidents that left 28 independent journalists behind bars with sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years.

“Incredibly, other brave journalists are filling the void, many of them women, including the wife of poet/journalist Raul Rivero, an IAPA member,” IAPA said. In this area, no other country yet rivals Cuba, which has been called ‘the largest jail for journalists in the world.'”

The United States did not escape criticism in the IAPA survey, which faulted several actions by the government and military related to the Iraq war and terrorism. A resolution singled out for criticism the arrests of foreign journalists by U.S. military forces in Iraq, who were later released “sometimes with no explanation for their arrest.” It said the government has not fully explained the circumstances of the U.S. tank fire against the Palestine hotel in Baghdad, killing two of the many press workers staying there.

IAPA urged the Pentagon — which has denied requests by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups to attend the military trials of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base — to open the tribunals “to the widest possible press coverage.”


PAN-AM HIGHWAY

In the days before and after the Inter American Newspaper Association convened in the Los Cabos resort town, other events in Mexico played out like a microcosm of the chronic problems faced by the Latin American press. There was violence: A newspaper editor was knifed to death in a particularly grisly way. There was corruption: Much of the staff of a Mexico City paper resigned en masse when its publisher was linked to money laundering. And there was government secrecy: The official papers of the four presidents between 1970 and 1994 have simply vanished, one newspaper reported.

ARGENTINA

Former President Fernando de la R?a told a federal judge this month that the government intelligence agency known as SIDE bribed journalists to kill damaging stories during the presidency of Carlos Menem, the Buenos Aires dailies La Naci?n and Clar?n reported.

COLOMBIA

Right-wing paramilitary leader Carlos Casta?o was sentenced in absentia March 10 for masterminding the August 1999 assassination of journalist and humorist Jaime Garz?n. Two other suspects were acquitted. The Bogata-based Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) noted that the actual murderers remain at large, and urged a new investigation of the murder.

In an action FLIP said could be precedent-setting for Colombian journalists facing criminal libel charges, a Bogota Superior Court prosecutor declared El Tiempo writer Roberto Posado Garc?a Pe?a, better known as “D’Artagnan,” could not be prosecuted because his correction of two articles involving businessman Pedro Juan Moreno Villa were sufficient to protect him from prosecution. An earlier prosecutor had pursued the case, claiming the correction did not comply with the criteria set by the Constitutional Court.

CUBA

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was satisfied with the 6,000-euro fine, or about U.S. $7,400, it was ordered to pay March 10 for supposed “non-compliance” of a 2003 court order banning it from using the famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara wearing a beret. To protest Cuban repression of journalists, RSF produced a poster that superimposed Che’s face on a famous May 1968 photo of a French policeman battering demonstrators. The heir of the Cuban photographer who took the Che photo, Alberto “Korda” Diaz Gutierrez, obtained a court order to ban RSF from using the image. She sued for 1,142,000 euros, or about US $1.4 million, after the poster could be glimpsed during an October television news interview with RSF Secretary-General Robert M?nard. “As Ms. Diaz Lopez had demanded in excess of one million euros, we think this ruling is reasonable and that it assigns an appropriate degree of importance to the offense,” he said. “The sole aim of Ms. Diaz Lopez’s demands was to stifle our organization, and the judge did not play along,” he added.

HONDURAS

Security Minister Oscar ?lvarez announced March 10 that authorities know the identity of at least two people who murdered TV news anchorman Germ?n Rivas last November in the first assassination of a journalist in Honduras in 25 years, El Salvador-based Journalists Against Corruption (PFC) reported. Police identified the fugitives as Jos? Alfonso Mor?n, alias “Chimba,” and Jos? Elenin Casta?eda, alias Gara??n. Authorities believe they are hiding in neighboring Guatemala, along with a third unnamed man also being sought in the murder. The motive remains unknown. ?lvarez said police are still investigating whether it was a crime of passion or of business, or if it was related to Riva’s aggressive reporting of cattle rustling and environmental damage in the border area near Guatemala, PFC reported.

MEXICO

The editor of El Ma?ana was found dead in the street of the Nuevo Laredo border town with more than two dozen stab wounds March 19. Roberto Javier Mora Garcia, 43, was murdered as he arrived at his home in his car, police told Jesse Bogan, a reporter in the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News border bureau. Mora’s wife, Aracely, told the paper, “I feel that it was revenge. They were waiting for him.” In its own coverage, El Ma?ana urged authorities to investigate links between Mora’s work and his murder and resist pressure to settle for the “simplistic hypothesis” that it was a random street crime.

Most of the staff of the Mexico City daily El Independiente resigned after authorities announced an arrest warrant for its owner, Carlos Ahumada, on charges of money laundering and corruption. Ahumada, an Argentine businessman, videotaped several encounters with officials of the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) apparently accepting money from him. Broadcasts of those videos earlier this month provoked a huge political scandal. The well-designed tabloid with a stable of respected writers is one of a new generation of feisty, independent-minded Mexico City papers. It was launched last July.

Officials of the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI) say no public records from four Mexican presidencies have been preserved at the Los Pinos official presidential residence, according to a March 22 story in the Mexico City daily Reforma by Daniel Liz?rraga headlined, “Archives of four terms vanish.” The story quotes IFAI’s director of archiving, Lina Gabriela Ornelas, as saying there is no way to obtain any official records from the stormy period beginning in 1970 with Luis Echeverria until the conclusion of Carlos Salinas’ term in 1994. “Nothing, there’s nothing, not even in the National General Archive. Ernesto Zedillo (president from 1995 to 2001) were the only presidents of recent times to prepare official documents,” Ornelas said. There is no way to get the documents back from the former presidents or their families, the IFAI said.

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