Reporters Without Borders appealed today to heads of government attending the Ibero-American Summit meeting in San José (Costa Rica) from 18-19 November to press Cuban President Fidel Castro to release 26 journalists he has imprisoned. It also called on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to urgently ensure that people who killed journalists were punished.
"The summit must uphold the principles it swears by," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. The 21 government heads at the last summit, in Santa Cruz (Bolivia) last November, said they would encourage the promotion and protection of human rights.
Since then, 11 journalists have been killed in the 21 participant countries, 24 arrested and 336 threatened or physically attacked. Twenty-six journalists are in prison, all of them in Cuba, where Castro’s regime has a monopoly of all news. Castro is attending the summit.
Cuba comes second from last (166th place), just ahead of North Korea, in the recently-announced Reporters Without Borders annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index (26 October). Colombia is 134th.
Peru (123rd), Mexico (96th) and Venezuela (90th) are also ranked in the bottom half of the index. The 16 other countries attending the summit are in the upper half. Portugal is best placed, at 25th.
Cuba and Colombia: a nightmare for journalists
All criticism of President Castro is considered a criminal offence in Cuba, where 26 journalists were arrested in March last year along with about 50 political dissidents. They have been accused of "anti-government" activities and given prison sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years. Typewriters and pens confiscated from their homes were presented as evidence of guilt at their trials.
Their sentences further tightened the state’s grip on the flow of all news and information and sparked strong international protests. Two of the group were freed in June this year but Cuba remains second only to China as the world’s biggest prison for journalists.
Colombia has genuine media diversity but journalists pay for it with their lives and two have been murdered since the last Ibero-American summit. Exposing the abuses of paramilitary and leftist guerrilla forces and the corruption of politicians is still more dangerous than anywhere else in the Americas.
The murder of journalist Oscar Polanco on 4 February this year after he reported links between a politician and drug barons is typical of the increasingly tough conditions the media has to work in. Corrupt politicians, armed groups and drug traffickers often unite to silence journalists. Since President Alvaro Uribe took office, they have also faced greater obstacles to doing their job from the police and army.
Fragile and violent democracies
Mexico, Peru and to a lesser extent Brazil have mixed press freedom, with a largely confident national press but with serious problems for provincial media, where journalists are murdered by gangs or local politicians. In Argentina, no journalists were killed but those in the provinces were threatened, harassed by police and courts and blackmailed by withdrawal of local government advertising..
Bombings, physical attacks and threats to journalists and media hostile to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were fewer than last year but remained frequent. A law currently being debated about the broadcast media’s "social responsibility" is also worrying. But tension has eased since Chávez won a 15 August referendum confirming him in office.
The murder of journalists and media assistants in Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic (where the media has traditionally been spared violence) is a reminder that the situation in some countries is still fragile. This also applies to Spain, where a dozen journalists have been threatened by the ETA Basque terrorist group.
This has been extracted from the Reporters Without Borders annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index issued on 26 October.
Third annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index