IAPA Sees Press Freedom ‘Dimming’ in Latin America

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Politically, Latin America these days is turning away from its infatuation in the 1990s with the so-called “Washington consensus” of free-trade and U.S.-style “neoliberal” economic policies. In Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and, just last month, Uruguay, voters are electing left-leaning populists who promise to restore social programs ignored in the rush to reform.

And the pendulum seems to be swinging in a new direction when it comes to Latin American press freedoms, too, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) concluded as it wrapped up its five-day mid-year meeting in Panama City, Panama, earlier this month.

“With some notable exceptions, hopes for a fully free and independent press throughout the hemisphere appear to be dimming … as several governments have turned openly hostile to media critics, and violence against journalists remains real, as five have been killed in the last six months,” IAPA said in a statement approved by the 388 publishers, editors, and journalists attending the meeting.

As it did in its annual meeting last October, IAPA directed much of its criticism at Venezuela and Cuba. “President Chavez’s consolidation of the courts under his control, along with a compliant National Assembly, had enabled him control the content of programs broadcast by television and radio,” IAPA said. “Meanwhile, his relentless attacks on the media have ‘chilled’ the willingness of others to criticize.”

Cuba “continued to be the most repressive government in the region, maintaining a monopoly on all information about government,” the Miami-based group said. IAPA noted that Fidel Castro’s government had recently released from prison for health reasons the independent journalist and poet Raul Rivero, a director of IAPA. Five other dissidents have been released, but IAPA pointed out that at least 25 people “remain behind bars for their journalism.”

But even Latin American presidents with less of an authoritarian bent than Chavez and Castro are piling on the press as well, and trying to muzzle criticism of their governments, IAPA noted with concern. “For example, President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina uses government advertising to pressure the media and attempt to ‘chill’ press criticism, while Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez has vilified the media and called press freedom ‘excessive,'” IAPA said.

The United States was not immune from criticism. A resolution condemned U.S. prosecutors for threatening jail and fines to force journalists to reveal sources. It condemned as “payola” the Bush administration’s former practice of secretly paying three journalists to promote its policies. And IAPA called on the Pentagon undertake a thorough investigation into the circumstances of journalists killed or wounded covering the Iraq war — and into alleged maltreatment of “journalists who say they were threatened and humiliated while held under U.S. detention.”

There were some press freedom victories in the last six months — including one that occurred at the IAPA meeting. In a speech to delegates, Panama’s newly elected president, Mart?n Torrijos, said he would propose legislation eliminating the notorious “gag laws” imposed two decades ago to limit press rights. Torrijos noted to delegates that on his first day in office, he revoked regulations of the nation’s “Transparency Law” that actually blocked free access to information.

Panama was one of several nations that passed or strengthened freedom of information laws and policies in recent months, IAPA noted.


PAN-AM HIGHWAY

An occasional journal of the working conditions faced by Latin American journalists.


ARGENTINA

Guido Uaut, a correspondent for the regional daily El Liberal, was attacked Feb. 27 by some 20 activists for the ruling Peronist party while covering gubernatorial elections in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported. Uaut was taking pictures of incidents between militants of opposing parties in a polling place when he was set upon by the Peronists, who roughed him up and stole his camera.


COLOMBIA

Hernando Marn? S?nchez Rold?n, a 64-year-old photographer with more than four decades of work for several papers, including the daily El Pa?s in Cali, was murdered Feb. 19 by two men who shot him in the head in Tulu?, a city in an area where left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and drug traffickers make reporting risky. IAPA sent a Rapid Response Unit of journalists to investigate the circumstances of the death. S?nchez Rold?n had not received any death threats or expressed fear, so the motive for his murder remains unknown, IAPA reported.

Two suspects were arrested Feb. 22 for the car bombing of the offices of RCN Television and Radio in Cali, the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported. The Feb. 20 bombing slightly injured two staffers and destroyed 70% of the building. The Colombian Army blamed the bombing on the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After the attack, Colombia President ?lvaro Uribe ordered the armed forces to “redouble security provisions for the news media,” the Bogota-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) reported.

On March 2, a broadcast station jointly owned by RCN and Caracol in the Putumayo department of southern Colombia was destroyed by heavily armed men who overpowered the lone security guard, poured gasoline around the station’s interior and set it aflame, according to FLIP. Local authorities said the FARC were to blame for the arson.


CUBA

Carlos Brizuela Year of the independent news agency Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camaguey in southwestern Cuba was freed March 2 after completing a three-year prison sentence for several charges, including “insulting the president,” arising from a 2002 incident in which he tried to visit a hospitalized fellow independent journalist, RSF reported.

Prison guards robbed independent journalist Omar Mois?s Hern?ndez of clothes, a watch, and medicine brought to him by his wife during a visit Feb. 24, the Miami-based Web portal Cubanet reported. His wife reported the journalist, who has heart problems, appeared to have lost weight during his imprisonment as one of 75 dissidents swept up in a crackdown in March 2003.


GUATEMALA

Eduviges Funes Vel?squez was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison for his part in the June 2003 home invasion at the Guatemala City house of Jos? Rub?n Zamora, publisher of daily El Periodico, RSF reported. The other defendant in the case, also a former member of the now disbanded presidential guard, Belter Armando ?lvarez, was acquitted for lack of evidence, RSF reported. “It’s frustrating because a protected witness and I identified both defendants,” Zamora told RSF. “I don’t understand this verdict. If one [person] was convicted, the other one should have been as well.” Zamora was held captive and threatened with death along with his family and domestic staff for several hours in the incident.


MEXICO

The entire press run of the Feb. 24 edition of the national daily El Universal was seized in Pachuca, capital of the state of Hidalgo, RSF reported. The group said no copy of the Mexico City-based paper could be found in Hidalgo that day, when the paper ran a report alleging the governor lied about having a law degree. News vendors told RSF that the copies were seized by individuals “who appeared to be local government agents and acted
in a violent and intimidating manner.”


VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s minister of communication and information accused British journalist Phil Gunson and other foreign and local journalists of working for the interests of the U.S. government. CPJ protested that, given the tense political climate in Venezuela, the statement physically endangered journalists. “In a context in which journalists have been physically attacked for their supposed alignment with one political faction or the other, to be called a paid agent of imperialism represents an obvious security risk,” CPJ quoted Gunson, a freelancer who writes for The Miami Herald, Newsweek, and The Economist, saying. Gunson denied Minister Andr?s Izarra’s allegations that his work amounted to propaganda for the Bush administration. Izarra told a press conference that he wasn’t making an accusation, just a “presumption” when he said: “Don’t be surprised if in the future … we discover that Mr. Gunson and El Nacional are receiving funds from the U.S. government.”

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