2007 Americas Annual Report
Do economic development and democracy ensure true freedom of the press? Not if you judge by the 2006 record in the Americas, where the holding of 12 major elections was offset by a grim toll for journalists. From five killed in 2002, the figure rose to seven in 2005 (after 12 in 2004) to 16 in 2006, plus four others who disappeared.
Mexico recorded nine dead and three missing as drug-trafficking spread, political instability was aggravated by serious unrest in Oaxaca state from May onwards and the 2 July election of Felipe Calderón to the presidency was disputed. The shooting death of American cameraman Brad Will, of the Indymedia news agency, while he was filming a 27 October teachers’ demonstration in Oaxaca showed the ready violence of the authorities and continuing failure to punish those responsible for attacks on journalists. Two policemen reportedly close to the state governor who were involved in the killing were freed after being held for a month.
Three journalists were killed in Colombia and a dozen others were forced to flee their region (and sometimes the country) after being threatened. The break-off in negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrillas once more prevented the media travelling to some parts of the country.
The failed demobilisation of the right-wing paramilitary forces, many of whom switched to drug-trafficking and contract killings, was a major threat to local journalists in the northern provinces and coastal regions. “Demobilised” paramilitaries were reportedly behind the 4 February shooting in the northern town of Montería of Gustavo Rojas Gabalo, of Radio Panzemu, who died six weeks later in hospital.
Cuba, the last dictatorship in the Americas, is thus no longer the only country in the region to jail journalists but it remains the world’s second biggest prison for them, with 24 detained. President Fidel Castro’s handover of power to his brother Raúl on 31 July did not soften the regime’s attitude to dissident media and secret police hounding and summoning of journalists increased in the second half of the year.
Two journalists arrested in 2005 were freed but two others were imprisoned. They were Armando Betancourt, a freelance working with the Nueva Prensa Cubana agency in Camagüey held without trial by state security police since 23 May, and Raymundo Perdigón Brito, founder of the Yayabo Press news agency, who was given a four-year prison sentence on 5 December for “socially dangerous behaviour.” Guillermo Espinosa Rodríguez, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO), was put under house arrest for two years.
A 25th journalist is a prisoner in Cuba but Sami Al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, was being held by the United States at its military base of Guantanamo (in southern Cuba) among 400 “enemy combatants” out of the reach of US laws in the name of the US “war on terrorism.” He has not been charged, but has been interrogated almost daily and is now in his fifth year of captivity in this base, which is largely out of bounds to the media and which the international community has urged be closed.
This legal and humanitarian scandal was accompanied by a worsening of press freedom in the US, as shown by the imprisonment on two occasions of blogger Josh Wolf (in August and in September). He could stay in jail until July 2007 unless he formally agrees to hand over his video archives. More than a dozen cases concerning the privacy of journalistic sources are before federal courts, while 33 US states recognise a journalist’s right not to reveal them. A federal bill to do the same, proposed in February 2005, has not yet been debated or voted on.
Peace or freedom?
In Central America, the media is fairly free in Costa Rica and Panama. The rarity of physical attacks on journalists in Nicaragua and El Salvador has less to do with true press freedom and more due to political control of the media and self-censorship. In Guatemala and Honduras, these problems combine to produce violence against a lively media. Guatemalan radio journalist Eduardo Maas Bol was killed on 9 September and Vinicio Aguilar Mancilla, of the independent station Radio 10, escaped assassination in August. Journalists on the Honduran website Revistazo.com were repeatedly threatened by a security firm. Politicians committed violence against journalists or demanded their dismissal.
In Haiti, the media only suffered a few physical attacks or abuses of authority in 2006. However the killers of journalists murdered under the rule of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the interim government that succeeded him remained unpunished and the suspects walk freely in public. New President René Préval has a big job ahead of him to create a fair and effective system of justice.
In South America, three journalists were killed and one vanished. Two were murdered in Ecuador in 24 hours in February, though only that of José Luis León Desiderio, of Radio Minutera, may have been because of his work. The disappearance and probably murder in Paraguay of Enrique Galeano, of Radio Azotey, on 4 February and the attempted shooting of a reporter of the daily ABC Color showed how exposed the media was to shady links between politicians and organised crime.
Peru kept its regional record for daily physical attacks and threats against the media, with more than 100 recorded during the year. Two politicians jailed for killing two journalists in 2004 were controversially freed.
Tension remains high between the privately-owned media and President Hugo Chávez’ government in Venezuela. Nearly five years after a failed coup against him and his easy reelection on 3 December 2006, the country’s broadcasting groups remain under pressure but the government has made little use of the media-curbing laws it has pushed through, such as the November 2004 media social responsibility law and a March 2005 reform of the criminal code. Indeed, 25 articles of the new code have been appealed against by the prosecutor-general as unconstitutional. The media paid the price of persistent lawlessness. Jorge Aguirre, a photographer of the daily El Mundo, was shot dead by a bogus policeman during a demonstration and a score of journalists were physically attacked, especially during the presidential election campaign.
Violence also increased at election time in Brazil, where a journalist was beaten to death by a town councillor and a community radio commentator was shot and wounded by a gunman while he was on the air. Some media outlets were targets of legal harassment, censorship and sometimes spying by federal police during the election campaign in October. But relations between government and the major privately-owned media became easier.
In Argentina however, President Néstor Kirchner still refused to hold press conferences. Intimidation, political pressure and especially blackmail by withholding public advertising led to broadcasts being censored and journalists at local and national level dismissed. The personal e-mail accounts of two journalists on the national daily Clarín, were hacked into in May, causing a scandal.
Though it came top among southern hemisphere countries in the 2006 worldwide press freedom index, Bolivia once more plunged into crisis in the last quarter of the year. Evo Morales, who took office in early 2006 as the country’s first indigenous president, now faces the threat of secession by four provinces. The media was the first target of the struggle between government and opposition. As happened in Venezuela, the gap between state and privately-owned media has widened and a “media war” may erupt. Two fire-bombs damaged the pro-government TV station Canal 7 in the opposition-controlled city of Santa Cruz.