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Introduction Americas - Annual Report 2006

A perilous continent, both north to south

Seven journalists and one media assistant were killed while doing their job in 2005 in the continent, which remained a dangerous place for the media even though the right to inform the public is recognised in every country except Cuba - still the world’s second biggest prison for journalists after China since a crackdown on dissidents in spring 2003.

Twenty journalists arrested then are still imprisoned in very poor conditions and the regime jailed three more in summer 2005. Independent media continue to be hounded by state security agents and the police. If they are not thrown in prison, Cuban journalists are faced with close surveillance or exile.

Press freedom in other countries remains weak. Colombia is still in the grip of its 40-year civil war and drug trafficking seriously hinders journalists’ freedom of movement and expression in Mexico. Physical attacks and threats are increasing in Peru and the Venezuelan government now has a range of laws that have made journalists censor themselves. A journalist was imprisoned in the United States for the first time for refusing to reveal her sources.

Mexico replaced Colombia as the continent’s most deadly country for journalists and in the first week of April 2005 two were murdered and a third vanished. Alfredo Jiménez Mota, of the daily El Imparcial in Hermosillo (in the northwestern state of Sonora) went missing on 2 April. Gunmen fired 8 bullets at Dolores Guadalupe García Escamilla, a journalist with radio station Estéreo 91 XHNOE in Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas state), in front of the station on 5 April and she died 11 days later. Raúl Gibb Guerrero, publisher of the regional daily La Opinión, was chased by gunmen in two cars in Papantla (in the eastern state of Veracruz) on 8 April and shot dead a few yards from his home. This brought to 16 the number of journalists who have been killed or have disappeared since 2000.

In Colombia, the media hesitates to mention topics such as pervasive corruption, drug trafficking or violence by armed groups. The country’s civil war also affects the media and journalists are hounded by guerrillas (mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - FARC), paramilitaries and drug-traffickers who all try to use the media for their own propaganda. Eight journalists were forced to flee their region and sometimes the country during the year. The murder of Julio Palacios Sánchez, of Radio Lemas, on 11 January in Cúcuta, once again highlighted the fact that being a journalist in Colombia is a matter of life and death.

Growing lawlessness

Physical attacks and threats and harassment of journalists in Peru increased to more than 80 during the year, often involving officials or government employees.

The Haitian media enjoyed a degree of freedom after the fall of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide in February 2004, but his supporters are still aggressive. The presence of US peacekeepers (MINUSTAH) has not curbed rising lawlessness, especially kidnappings, among them the seizure and murder in July of Jacques Roche, cultural editor of the daily Le Matin. His kidnapping began as a routine affair but changed when the kidnappers realised who he was and that he had once been involved with the anti-Aristide Group of 184. The investigation into his death made rapid progress, but those into the murder in 2000 of Jean Dominique, boss of Radio Inter, and Brignol Lindor, of Radio Echo 2000, in 2001, remained stalled, suggesting deeply-rooted impunity.

The political and media battle in Venezuela between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez seemed to calm down in 2005 but this was mainly due to a new measures restricting the media. A referendum in August confirmed Chavez in power, divided his opponents and leaving him free to settle scores with the privately-owned media he accused of being behind his brief overthrow in April 2002.

He promulgated a law in December 2004 about the media’s “social responsibility,” giving the national telecommunications commission, Conatel, power to ban radio and TV stations that “encourage, justify or incite war, criminal offences or disturbance of the peace.”

Amendments to the criminal code that came into force in March 2005 expanded the range of media offences and increased penalties, including between six months and two and a half years in prison (up from just three months) for offending the president, with a 30% higher penalty if the insult was made publicly. So far the government and courts have not applied the new penalties but they have led the media to censor themselves.

Secrecy of sources under attack in North America

Press freedom was also undermined in North America, where the privacy of journalistic sources became the centre of judicial battle that is not yet over. In Canada, several court decisions threatened sources and in the United States, New York Times journalist Judith Miller spent three months in prison for defending it. Her jailing on 6 July was a drama in a country whose constitution says nobody shall be prosecuted for their opinions or writings. Miller had not even written anything about the case involving Valerie Plame, a CIA agent who was illegally named in the press in 2003. Miller had won a similar case before a New York court on 24 February. So far, 31 US states have recognised the right to privacy of sources, but federal authorities do not. Two bills to defend it were introduced in Congress in February and remain to be debated.

The press freedom record was mixed in Brazil, where investigative journalist José Candido Amorim Pinto, who worked for a community radio station in the northeastern state of Pernambuco and was also a town councillor, was murdered on 1 July after exposing corruption. But the seven convictions in the 2002 murder of TV Globo journalist Tim Lopes showed that impunity was being rolled back somewhat.

The continent’s media still face abuses of power by central governments, as in Argentina, where its relations with President Néstor Kirchner are tense. South America’s two biggest countries are still attached to “gag laws.” Brazil’s 1967 press law, a holdover from the 1964-85 military dictatorship allowing prison terms for press offences, has still not been repealed and is sometimes used against provincial media investigative journalists. A bill was debated by Argentina’s chamber of deputies to only release official information of “legitimate interest” and carrying civil and criminal penalties for institutions and officials, including the media.

The continent’s “good” countries for press freedom are not the most obvious ones. Despite chronic political instability and few solid democratic habits, attacks on press freedom are still rare in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay and in Central American countries only recently recovered from civil wars. Uruguay also still has its reputation as the “Switzerland of Latin America” despite physical attacks on investigative journalists.

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2006 Americas annual report
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