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1. Americas introduction

Freedom of the press throughout the world - Annual report 2002

Main threats: violence to the south, anti-terrorist laws in the north

The effects on press freedom of the 11 September attacks were especially felt in North America. The first casualties were a photographer, killed after he rushed to the scene at the World Trade Center, and eight media employees who worked in one of the towers destroyed. Then the authorities restricted journalists’ access to the site, for security reasons and also to prevent photos being taken of corpses that could have shocked the US public. As soon as the towers were hit, the United States government started planning a military operation in Afghanistan and a media war was launched against America’s number one enemy (those who planned the attack), often to the detriment of press freedom. The Bush Administration made plenty of recommendations to the media about how they should handle tapes showing Osama bin Laden. Just like authoritarian Arab regimes, the US State Department exerted pressure on the Qatari TV station Al Jazeera, which it accused of encouraging anti-American feeling in the Middle East. The buying-up by the Pentagon of all the photos taken by the non-military Ikonos satellite, which gave an accurate record of the effects of the US military strikes in Afghanistan, was another form of censorship. The adoption of the so-called "Patriot" anti-terrorist law was a blow to advocates of Internet confidentiality, giving the FBI the power to monitor e-mail exchanges between terrorist suspects without having to get permission from a judge. In Canada, reforms to help the authorities fight terrorism culminated in December with passage of Bill C-36, which seriously undermined the right of journalists not to reveal their sources.

In Latin America, no country seemed truly untouched by violence against the media. After Uruguay in 2000, equally peaceful Costa Rica recorded the murder of a journalist in 2001. Eight journalists and three media employees were killed during the year in six countries - Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti and Paraguay - 50 per cent more than in the previous year. Most were political killings or in revenge for revelations about corruption. The fight against impunity moved forward with difficulty. In Mexico, the killers of two journalists murdered in 1997 were tried and convicted, but those who ordered the murder remained free. In Paraguay, the man who killed Salvador Medina in January 2001 was sentenced nine months later to 25 years in prison, but the alleged masterminds were acquitted for lack of evidence. In Costa Rica, the authorities had still not identified the killers of Parmenio Medina, who had made daring disclosures on the Catholic station Radio María de Guadalupe. Impunity continued in Colombia, where the public prosecutor’s office said a judge had been pressured to acquit the accused killers of Nelson Carvajal in April. In September, the escape from house arrest of member of parliament Carlos Alberto Oviedo, suspected of ordering the murder of two journalists, showed how much progress remains to be made. Forty journalists have been killed in Colombia since 1991.

In Haiti, all state institutions collaborated in the atmosphere of impunity, as shown by the obstacles placed in the way of the enquiry into the April 2000 murder of radio journalist Jean Dominique. Police refused to execute several arrest warrants issued by the investigating judge and were thought to be involved in the death of two important suspects soon after their arrests. The senate refused to lift the parliamentary immunity of Sen. Dany Toussaint, the main suspect in the case. The justice minister failed to provide the investigating judge with sufficient security. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made many reassuring statements but did nothing except cover for the attitude of the police, the senate and his government in the affair. Confident of enjoying the same indulgence, supporters of the ruling Fanmi Lavalas party stepped up their attacks and threats against critical journalists, who they lumped with the opposition to justify the attacks on them. This increased violence led to the murder of another journalist in early December and the departure for exile of a dozen journalists soon after an apparent coup attempt on 17 December.

The situation also deteriorated, though less, in Central America. In Costa Rica, radio journalist Parmenio Medina was killed and a defamation conviction upheld by the supreme court was criticised by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which saw it as a dangerous precedent. In Panama, state officials disliking criticism constantly harassed the media, using laws that still provide jail terms for defamation or harming someone’s reputation, and filed more than 70 complaints. In Honduras, President Carlos Flores was suspected of pressuring two media usually critical of him when they dismissed six of their journalists. In Nicaragua, President Arnoldo Alemán stepped up his hostility towards the media in the last year of his term. He physically attacked one journalist, government advertising was pulled from one of the two main daily papers, laws aimed at curbing the media were proposed and a law passed forcing journalists to belong to a professional institute or face jail.

A law to force journalists to be members of an official institute also came into force in Guatemala in December, decreeing that those who were "morally lacking" as journalists be dismissed from the institute and thus banned from working. The move came as the press was more energetically assuming its role of monitoring and criticising the authorities. But the country’s journalists paid dearly for revealing corruption by politicians. A dozen of them were attacked or threatened for writing in this issue. One, Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz, was gunned down after accusing local officials of embezzlement. In Paraguay, Salvador Medina was also killed after denouncing links between local politicians and criminals in a timber racket. Two laws on access to information that are likely to obstruct the work of investigative journalists came into effect a few months later. They were regarded by Paraguayans as "self-protection laws" conjured up by the country’s politicians.

In Cuba, President Fidel Castro’s regime is protected by a Constitution that says all media are state-owned. Cuba is the last dictatorship in the Americas and also the only country where journalists are still formally imprisoned. Two were released from jail in 2001, but this was not a sign the regime was softening. Castro protected his image by choosing indirect but just as effective repression aimed at maintaining the state’s monopoly control of information. Despite this, a hundred or so independent journalists still try to send articles to the Cuban exile community abroad where they are put on Internet websites, which ordinary Cubans do not see because of strict government control on Internet access. Independent journalists are also constantly harassed to discourage them from working and are subjected to arrests, interrogations, phone tapping, threats of

prosecution, summonses by the police and pressure on their families. Foreign correspondents based in Havana work under close government surveillance as well. As a warning to others, Reuters and Financial Times reporter Pascal Fletcher was the target of a campaign in the state media to discredit him and was forced to leave the country. This "sanitised" media scene is occupied by the official press that puts out material approved beforehand by the government’s Department of Revolutionary Guidance.

Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela and a great admirer of Fidel Castro, raised concern with his inflammatory statements against the media and observers wondered if the former soldier and author of a failed coup in 1992 would turn into a dictator. The verbal threats of previous years grew in 2001 to include new kinds of intimidation such as a threat to withdraw a TV station’s broadcasting licence, the threat of a tax inspection and a supreme court ruling that would curb press freedom. In Brazil, as in Mexico, the threat was not from the presidency but from local politicians and criminal elements. In the eastern state of Bahia, the daily paper A Tarde denounced financial pressure on the opposition media by the family of former state governor Antônio Carlos Magalhães. In Rio Grande do Sul state, courts twice imposed penalties on newspapers that seemed to come from another era. In Mexico, the murder of José Luis Ortega Mata in Chihuahua state underlined once more the dangers journalists run when they investigate smuggling along the border with the United States. About 20 instances of attacks, threats and pressures were recorded, some of them worthy of authoritarian regimes.

It was another sombre year for the media in Colombia, where three journalists and a media employee were murdered, mainly because of the war between paramilitary forces and communist guerrillas. The war was also one of information. Entire regions, such as Caqueta and Nariño provinces, are being fought over by the armed groups and were thus very dangerous for journalists. Local politicians and organised crime also attacked the press. In view of this, the funding of the government’s scheme to protect journalists was inadequate. Despite progress in recent years, the public prosecutor was still far too overworked to be able to investigate fully the case of every journalist killed. The general lawlessness drove eight more journalists into exile during the year.

While press freedom on the continent generally deteriorated during the year, some countries provided a ray of hope. The situation was satisfactory in Uruguay, Ecuador and El Salvador and sharply improved in Peru and Chile. In Chile, the notorious Article 6b of the 1958 internal state security law was finally repealed. The article provided for up to five years in jail for anyone who "insulted" or "defamed" top state officials and about 30 people had been threatened with such prosecution since the return of democracy in 1990. In Peru, the page was finally turned on the Fujimori years and, free of pressure from secret police and obedient judges, the media could again play its role of criticising the authorities without fear of reprisals. But there were many revelations about money received by heads of TV stations from former intelligence chief and Fujimori right-hand man Vladimiro Montesinos. As a result, these stations risk losing their broadcasting licences. This was a tricky issue for the new president, Alejandro Toledo, who was suspected of wanting to take advantage of the situation to hand out licences to his cronies.

americas countries list

see also
Annual report 2002

Hard times for press freedom
Africa annual report 2002
Asia annual report 2002
Europe annual report 2002
Maghreb / Middle-East annual report 2002