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Knowledge is Power: Freedom of the Press in the Americas

May 6, 2011

According to the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Death Watch, in 2010, three countries worldwide hit the double digits in number of reporter and media staff who died in the line of duty, either as collateral damage, or as a deliberate attempt to silence them. Of those three countries, two were in the Americas–12 killed in Mexico, and 10 killed in Honduras. Only Pakistan proved more dangerous for media personnel, with 16 deaths. With 32 deaths region-wide, almost a third of the 102 media professionals killed worldwide in 2010 lost their lives in the Americas. Only Asia, which includes 40 countries or territories–five countries more than the Americas–saw more deaths.

In conjunction with World Press Freedom Day, observed on 3 May each year, Freedom House released its annual report, “Freedom of the Press 2011: Signs of Change Amidst Repression”. This summary of worldwide trends details the highs and lows of press freedom in 196 countries and territories worldwide for the year 2010, rating the press of each country as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free based on universal criteria designed to measure legal, political, and economic environment.

Of the 35 countries and territories in the Americas, 17 enjoy Free press, 14 are Partly Free, and as of 2010, 4 states are listed as Not Free. Until now, only Cuba and Venezuela have been listed by Freedom House as Not Free; due to government repression and organized crime, Honduras and Mexico have now joined them.

It’s important to note that Colombia was the only Latin American country to show an increase of press freedom. Impunity came to a sudden end as closed investigations were reopended, and charges were filed in cold cases. That said, Colombia still remains solidly in the “Partly Free” category.

While we recognize the important strides being made in Colombia, it’s crucial that we discuss the four American states listed as Not Free for 2010–particularly Honduras and Mexico, since they are new additions to that category.

Freedom of the press plummeted in Honduras after the 2009 golpe de estado. An on-going constitutional crisis culminated with former president Manuel Zelaya being forced into exile on 28 June 2009. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, media censorship was blatant. The IPI reports that even in 2011:

Physical attacks remain a high danger in Central American countries, particularly in Honduras, where a number of journalists have been attacked by police while covering demonstrations.

While press freedom has partially returned with the gradual re-enstatement of constitutional protections, the first quarter proved deadly, with seven journalists killed (five in March alone) and three forced into exile–two fleeing the country after being kidnapped and tortured, and one joining them after an attempted murder. For the first three months of 2010, Honduras was easily the most dangerous country worldwide for media professionals.

To summarize, here are some of the trends in press freedom in Honduras:

• Media opposition to the military golpe de estado in 2009 led to a sharp increase in government censorship of the press;

• Despite an improvement in the political environment in early 2010, violent crimes against media professionals saw a significant increase–on both sides of the political divide; and

• A climate of impunity has been thoroughly established, with a general failure to fully investigate violent crimes toward journalists in a timely manner.

While we often think of censorship as coming in the form of government controls, the biggest threat to press freedom in Mexico is organized crime. The Reporters Without Borders report on Mexico explains that:

With 61 journalists murdered since 2000 and nine other cases of disappearances since 2003, Mexico has long been the region’s deadliest country for the press.

Critics of the Mexican government, to include former U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, question its ability to control organized crime and drug trade-related violence. The result is that those who lead the organized crime rings effectively call the shots for the media, through extortion and/or bribery. According to the Freedom House report:

In Mexico, violence associated with drug trafficking has led to a dramatic increase in attacks on journalists and rising levels of self-censorship and impunity. In 2010, the country’s organized crime groups moved more aggressively to control the news agenda; no longer satisfied with silencing the media, they have demanded specific coverage that suits their interests.

To summarize, here are some of the trends in press freedom in Mexico:

• Mexico remains the region’s leader for violence against journalists;

• Drug lords provide “press releases” to the media, threatening or bribing them into reporting it as newsworthy;

• Some of the major media outlets made a pact promising not to glorify the drug traficking by printing graphic pictures, a form of self-censorship–albeit a courageous one, given the potential consequences of de-glorifying the narcoterrorists by not giving them the widespread coverage they seek; and

• The government has done little to investigate crimes against media professionals.

In her address on World Free Press Day, which the United States was privileged to host in Washington, DC this year, Secretary Clinton said it well:

Even as we celebrate innovations that make information easier to share, we are reminded that in many places around the world, journalists are still targeted for harassment and abuse, and are sometimes killed. […] We must continue to stand up for those who speak out in perilous circumstances as they pursue, record, and report the truth.

Thankfully, none of the Top Ten worst countries for freedom of the press are in the Americas. But a survey of the region at large indicates a general downturn. The IPI has expressed concerns about Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia (despite improvements), Argentina, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and even the United States and Canada (growing bipartisan pressure on reporters).

It will be interesting to see what 2011 holds for Latin America, given that just this week, journalists in Ecuador have expressed concern over media censorship initiatives on the ballot for an upcoming referendum, the Inter-American Press Association is currently in Argentina investigating accusations that the government is trying to eliminate freedom of the press, and the IPYS of Peru denounced the apparent assassination of a radio journalist on 4 May.

Shortly thereafter, on 5 May, the IPI condemned the 3 May murders of reporters in Peru and Brazil–a twisted, ironic way of celebrating World Press Freedom Day.

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