Reporters Without Borders calls on leaders attending the three-day European Union - Latin America and Caribbean summit that starts tomorrow in Vienna to do more for press freedom, which has taken a beating in the western hemisphere during the past year or so.
“Seven journalists were murdered in connection with their work in the Americas in 2005 and five more have been killed since the start of this year,” the press freedom organisation said. “Most of these murders are still unpunished. Physical attacks, harassment and censorship of the media are all common practice, sometimes with the support of local politicians and judicial officials.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “At the same time, we welcome the efforts undertaken in some countries to provide better guarantees for press freedom and free expression, especially by means of legislative reform. These efforts must continue and we hope they will get help from the European Union. We also hope the EU will bring its insistence on respect for human rights to the attention of the government of Cuba, the hemisphere’s only country where press freedom is non-existent.”
Cuba has kept its unfortunate position as the world’s second biggest prison for the press, after China, ever since the March 2003 crackdown on dissidents. Twenty of the journalists rounded up during that “black spring” are still being held in terrible conditions. Three more have been held since last summer, two of them without being charged or tried. The independent journalists who are not in prison are kept under close watch, and right now are undergoing yet another wave of repression, marked by collective reprisals, sudden summonses for questioning by State Security (the political police) and blackmail based on the need for government permission to leave Cuba.
Mexico became the western hemisphere’s deadliest country for the press last year. Two journalists were murdered and a third disappeared in a single week, the first week of April 2005. This year, a news photographer and a radio journalist were killed within the space of 24 hours on 9 and 10 March. A month before that, on 6 February, two gunmen opened fire inside the office of the El Mañana daily in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, seriously injuring one of its reporters.
In all, 16 journalists have been murdered since Vicente Fox became president in 2000, six of them in Nuevo Laredo, where drug trafficking seriously threatens press freedom as it does in all the Mexican cities bordering the United States. The federal government did, it is true, assign a special prosecutor’s office to handle attacks on the media, but what impact can it have if it is not allowed to deal with drug-trafficking cases, the biggest source of threats to journalists?
Reporters Without Borders hails the decriminalization of press offences and protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources that was approved by the Mexican federal chamber of deputies on 18 April. This big step forward must still be ratified by the senate, and must not be forgotten because of the coming elections.
In Colombia, the murders of Julio Palacios Sánchez of Radio Lemas on 11 January 2005 in Cúcuta and Gustavo “El Gaba” Rojas Gabalo of Radio Panzemu on 4 February 2006 in Montería were reminders that journalism is a matter of life or death. Journalists are subject to constant pressure that forces them to choose between self-censorship or exile. Eight had to leave their region or the country in 2005.
Subjects that clamour for attention cannot be tackled without risking reprisals. Human rights violation by the various armed groups, corruption and drug trafficking are all off-limits. The demobilisation of the paramilitaries that began in 2003 has not yielded the hoped-for results. The Justice and Peace law that was adopted at President Alvaro Uribe’s behest places limits on the punishment of most of the crimes committed by the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC). More than 8,000 of its members are still active or have become contract killers. Rojas Gabalo was one of their victims.
Violence and intimidation have spiralled in Peru. Reporters Without Borders registered 62 cases of threats or physical attacks on the press in 2005. Nine journalists have undergone this kind of attack so far in 2006, often by local officials seeking to discourage media curiosity.
Press freedom continues to be fragile in Haiti. The new government led by President-elect René Préval, who takes office on 14 May, must end the impunity that continues to surround the murders of Jean Dominique of Radio Haïti Inter in 2000, Brignol Lindor of Radio Echo 2000 in 2001 and Jacques Roche of the daily Le Matin in 2005. These cases all constitute solid reasons for reforming a judicial system that has broken down, and giving it the resources it needs to function.
Relations between the authorities and the privately-owned press continue to be tense in Venezuela, where judicial proceedings have been initiated since the start of the year against 10 journalists under the December 2004 law of social responsibility of the broadcast media and the March 2005 criminal code reform. By making it punishable to “insult” a public official, the criminal code reform undermines ability of the press to play the role it should have in democracy, which is to question and challenge the government. Nonetheless, no final sentence has yet been passed, and the context still favours a dialogue between government and media.
Finally, the situation of Brazil’s local press is still difficult, especially in the north and northeast, where illegal activities are common, and local authorities do not always respect human rights. Furthermore, federal legislation still includes a law passed in 1967, during the 1964-1985 military regime, under which press offences are punishable by imprisonment, despite the fact that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed the Inter-American Press Association’s Declaration of Chapultepec on 3 May, which requires governments to decriminalize press offences and guarantee the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.