The challenges that journalists and media organizations face today in the hemisphere were extensively discussed in a couple of events that took place in New York last month.
“Press Freedom, Press Standards and Democracy in Latin America” was a conference organized by Columbia University as part of the Maria Moors Cabot 75 Anniversary Celebration.
This year’s winners of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize —the oldest and most prestigious international award in journalism of the Western hemisphere—are journalist and author Jon Lee Anderson, documentary photographer Donna DeCesare, Brazilian investigative reporter Mauri König, and Alejandro Santos Rubino, director of Colombia’s weekly magazine “Semana”.
Cuban blogger Yoanni Sánchez, who in 2009 wasn’t authorized by Cuba’s authorities to travel to New York to pick up the Special Citation granted to her by the Cabot Board, was able to do so this time.
The honorees participated also in a panel hosted by Americas Society-Council of the Americas for the launch of “Americas Quarterly” latest issue, a sweeping, in-depth survey of this hot topic.
“The region is much better than 30 or 40 years ago, when military dictatorships were the norm,” said Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-Chief of the magazine. “With one big exception—Cuba, where is no tolerance for independent media at all.” (Jon Lee Anderson just wrote for The New Yorker a long essay on Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, a must-read on the situation of critical intellectuals and freedom of speech in the Caribbean island.)
Yet over the past couple of decades there has also been a troubling increase in the number of journalists murdered or harassed. The causes are varied:
- In Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (as in Colombia in the 1980s) journalists are a prime target for assassination by drug lords. “Mexico is the deadliest Latin American country for the press,” said panelist Carlos Lauría, from the Committee to Protect Journalists. “In the past six and a half years more than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared and many others have been forced to flee the country.”
- In Brazil or Peru, journalists investigating corruption in remote areas are also easy target for assassination because of the lack of police or institutional protection.
- In Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina there are serious conflicts between government and private-own media. “Unlike the state-sponsored persecution and censorship of the past, these are democratically elected governments, albeit of a populist and autocratic strain, with little tolerance for criticism,” said Sabatini.
In most Latin American countries, media are concentrated in a small number of companies that are also key players in their nation's economy. “Limiting the power of these corporations is a legitimate democratic goal, but one that is usually carried out in a partisan and opportunistic manner by the government,” said Sabatini.
Argentina is a case in point.
In 2008, after a sour political dispute over farm taxes, President Cristina Kirchner accused Grupo Clarin, publisher of the largest-circulation Spanish-language daily in the Americas and a huge conglomerate of print, TV, and radio, of trying to destabilize her.
The following year, Congress passed a law limiting the number of cable and radio licenses, which forces Clarín and others to sell a large number of its properties.“The government used a well-designed, exemplary law as a weapon against one particular company,” said Sabatini. Clarín challenged the constitutionality of the law in the courts, but a few weeks ago Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled against the Clarín Group. Spokespeople for the Group have said that they are ready to bring the case to international courts.
Venezuela is “the starkest example of the lack of tolerance for different opinions and has served as a model to others who try to weaken the press too,” said Lauría. “No one has learned the lesson better than Ecuador´s President Rafael Correa.” Ecuador’s law of communications, which allows government interference in the newsrooms and includes provisions aimed at intimidating reporters such as a controversial “media lynching” clause, is under the scrutiny of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Criticism was not limited to Latin American populist regimes. During the panels was also discussed a harsh CPJ report on the Obama administration’s efforts to curtail the information and prosecute sources and journalists who disseminate national security and other public interest information.