Reporters Without Borders hopes that basic freedoms, especially free expression, will be discussed at the 18th Ibero-American summit, a three-day meeting of heads of state and government from Latin America, Spain and Portugal that begins tomorrow in the Chilean capital of Santiago with the official theme of “Social cohesion and public policies for fairer societies.”
The summit’s discussions will concern societies marked by a high degree of ideological polarisation and unequal access to public media and to information. The press freedom organisation urges its participants to jointly commit to editorial freedom and diversity of views, and even to consider harmonising their press legislation as part of the drive for regional integration.
Violence and impunity
There has been no letup in the shocking level of violence against the media and impunity for those who murder journalists. Mexico and Colombia have held on to their position as the western hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for the press.
In Mexico, the 33 murders and seven disappearances of journalists since 2000 have never resulted in anyone being convicted. At least half of these journalists were killed for showing too much interest in drug trafficking, contraband or corruption.
They include Alfredo Jiménez Mota of the Hermosillo-based daily El Imparcial, missing since 2 April 2005, Raúl Gibb Guerrero, the editor of the daily La Opinión, who was gunned down on 8 April of the same year in the state of Veracruz, and Enrique Perea Quintanilla, the founder of the investigative monthly Dos Caras, Una Verdad, whose body, bearing the marks of torture, was found on 9 August 2006 in the state of Chihuahua. The underlying causes are the lack of cooperation between federal and regional authorities and the fact that drug trafficking’s tentacles reach into the heart of the administration.
Even if the number of murders of journalists has fallen in Colombia, the civil war and violent crime weigh as much as ever on the news media’s activities and safety. The demobilisation of the paramilitary alliance known as the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) from June 2003 to June 2006 did not include the social reintegration of its members so it had the perverse effect of leading to the recreation of individual armed groups such as the “Aguilas Negras,” which operates independently in the Atlantic coast departments.
In the south, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have gone back to their old methods of intimidation and sabotage. Several journalists, including some at odds with President Alvaro Uribe, have been forced to leave the country since the start of the year.
They include Radio Caracol news director Darío Arizmendi Posada, who was threatened by an unknown group, Germán Hernández Vera, the managing editor of the Diario del Huila newspaper in the southwestern city of Neiva, who had long been in the FARC’s sights, Gonzalo Guillén, the Colombia correspondent of the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald, and Hollman Morris, producer and host of the investigative programme “Contravía” on public TV’s Canal Uno, who was harassed by the “Patriotic Front,” a mysterious group linked to the paramilitaries.
Other cases of violence and abuse of authority have marked 2007 in such countries as Honduras and El Salvador, where freelance journalist María Haydee Chicas was detained on a terrorism charge in July after covering a demonstration. In Brazil, the police have still not caught the killers of Luiz Barbon Filho, a reporter for the Jornal do Porto and JC Regional newspapers, who was gunned down on 5 May in São Paulo.
Decriminalization of press offences
Polarisation should not serve as a pretext for the authorities to use the withdrawal of state advertising as a way to pressure news media, as has too often proved to be the case at the local level in Argentina. Nor should it give rise to attempts to control the press or restrict freedom of expression or, worse still, to include the criminalization of press offences. The latter is clearly possible in Ecuador, proceeding to constitutional reforms, although the debate is still open.
It would, in general, be desirable it legislative changes were to include the decriminalization of press offences such as defamation, slander and insults. This was done at the federal level in Mexico on 6 March. Only six countries have so far decriminalized the offence of insulting a public official (Honduras, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay and Guatemala).
This tendency is clearly not being followed in Venezuela, where a referendum is to be held on 2 December on a constitutional reform that would allow a state of emergency of unlimited duration under which press freedom could be suspended. It would confirm the disturbing decline in media diversity marked by Radio Caracas Televisión’s loss of its terrestrial broadcasting licence on 27 May.
There is nonetheless a need to regulate the allocation of broadcast frequencies in a region known for remarkable growth in the number of community radio stations. The draft law adopted by Uruguay’s house of representatives on 5 June, under which frequencies will be assigned jointly by the state and civil society, is clearly an example to be followed. Chile’s parliament is soon to debate legislation on this kind of media.
The Cuban exception
Consolidated in some countries, weakened in others, press freedom exists to some degree everywhere in the region except one country, Cuba, where the human rights situation has not evolved since Raúl Castro took over as acting president from his elder brother, Fidel, on 26 July 2006. With 24 dissident journalists detained - three of them arrested under the new president - Cuba is the world’s second biggest prison for the press, after China.
Among the 20 journalists held since the March 2003 crackdown, serving sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years, the state of health of Normando Hernández González, the head of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey independent news agency, is particularly alarming.
Reporters Without Borders supports Costa Rica’s attempts to persuade the Cuban authorities to allow it to give Hernández humanitarian asylum.
The organisation also calls on the governments to intercede on behalf of Hernández and the other imprisoned journalists.