Reporters Without Borders today urged leaders arriving in Spain for an annual Ibero-American summit to respond with an appropriate level of vigilance and responsibility to the press freedom violations that have been taking place in their region. Reporters Without Borders will be present as an observer at the summit, which the Spanish government and king are hosting in Salamanca on 14-15 October.
The record so far this year shows that the struggle for press freedom still has not been won in Latin America, the media watchdog said. Seven journalists have been killed or murdered in connection with their work since January. Most of these cases go unpunished, as do many cases of physical attacks and threats. Five Latin American countries are of particular concern.
Mexico has rejoined Colombia in the ranks of high-risk countries for the press, especially as regard the coastal states and those along the US border, where the trafficking is concentrated. This spring was a black one for the Mexican press, with no fewer than two journalists killed and one disappeared in a single week, the first week of April.
Crime reporter Dolores Guadalupe García Escamilla of radio Estereo 91 XHNOE in Nuevo Laredo (in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas) was gunned down outside the station on 5 April and died 11 days later. Raúl Gibb Guerrero of the local daily La Opinión, was killed on 8 April in the eastern state of Veracruz. And Alfredo Jiménez Mota of the daily El Imparcial in Hermosillo (in the northwestern state of Sonora) has been missing since 2 April.
All three of these journalists had been investigating sensitive issues related to drug trafficking or local government corruption. During a field trip to Mexico from 22 to 31 May, Reporters Without Borders saw the degree of self-censorship being practised by the media as a result of these murders.
The organisation is also concerned about the judicial response to these killings. While the murders of journalists are now handled by the federal authorities, investigators are still not getting adequate resources and the government has not yet kept its promise to create a special federal prosecutor’s office.
This year began tragically in Colombia with the murder on 11 January of Julio Palacios Sánchez of Radio Lemas in the northeastern city of Cúcuta. Here too, the investigation has yielded no results.
Hernán Echeverri, a photographer with the fortnightly Urabá Hoy in the northwestern department of Antioquia was kidnapped by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on 22 January. Fortunately, he was finally freed on 17 April. Nonetheless, the case highlights the capacity of armed groups, paramilitaries and guerrillas to disrupt journalism in certain areas if not make it virtually impossible, as Reporters Without Borders itself witnessed in Antioquia and the western department of Valle del Cauca. The FARC has regularly sabotaged radio and TV broadcast installations this year.
At the same time, threats or harassment by paramilitaries or drug traffickers have resulted in seven journalists fleeing the region where they work, if not the country altogether, since January. Daniel Coronell, a columnist for the magazine Semana, and producer of the “Noticias Uno” news programme on Bogotá’s Canal Uno TV station, was forced to flee to the United States on 14 August. Reporters Without Borders expects the government to give journalists effective protection that does not obstruct their work. It also expects even-handed disarmament of all the participants in a civil war that has gone on for more than 35 years.
No journalists have been murdered in Peru this year, but it holds the record for physical attacks, threats and acts of intimidation against journalists. Reporters Without Borders has registered more than 30 cases of physical violence, often by government officials or politicians. For example, Peru’s ambassador to Spain, Fernando Olivera Vega, struck a woman radio reporter with great force during a visit to Lima on 28 April.
The improvement in the situation of the press in Haiti since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s fall suffered a reverse with the murder of Jacques Roche, the head of Le Matin’s arts and culture section, on 14 July in Port-au-Prince. A month earlier, Nancy Roc of Radio Métropole had to flee the country on 16 June after being threatened with abduction, just five days after the station’s director, Richard Widmaier, himself narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt.
What’s more, the instigators of the murders of Jean Dominique of Radio Haïti Inter in 2000 and Brignol Lindor of Radio Echo 2000 in 2001 still have not been arrested and tried. Nor was there any follow-up to the arrests of a policeman and an alleged pro-Aristide activist for their presumed involvement in the fatal shooting of Spanish journalist Ricardo Ortega during a demonstration in Port-au-Prince on 7 March 2004. After a field trip to Haiti on 23-27 September, Reporters Without Borders appealed to all the presidential candidates to pledge to end impunity if elected.
Finally, Reporters Without Borders continues to campaign as energetically as ever for the journalists imprisoned in Cuba, the only western hemisphere country where there is absolutely no press freedom. A total of 21 journalists who were arrested in the spring 2003 crackdown and given jail terms of 14 to 27 years continue to endure terrible conditions in Cuban prisons.
Two others joined them in 2005. Alberto Santiago Du Bouchet Fernández, the editor of the independent Havana Press agency, was arrested and sentenced on 9 August to a year in prison for “civil disobedience.” Oscar Mario González Pérez of the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro news agency, who has been held in a total of four different Havana police station since July, faces a possible 20-year sentence under Law 88, which is supposed to “protect Cuba’s national independence and economy.” Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate and unconditional release of González and all the other Cuban journalists who are in prison simply for trying to practise their trade freely.
The Latin American heads of state and government gathering in Salamanca should not try to stint on the time they give to the issue of press freedom in their region. Reporters Without Borders reminds the democratic governments that it is their duty to promote and defend human rights and it hopes they will be very firm with those countries where these freedoms are still flouted.