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Introduction Americas - Annual Report 2008

Polarisation of the media

The threat of death still looms over journalists in countries most exposed to drug-trafficking. The United States also recorded a journalist killed. The media is a major political and ideological player in Latin America and is both a vehicle and an instrument of a dangerous polarisation that has turned into a “media war” in Venezuela. Cuba remains a regional exception despite the partial change in its leadership.

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Americas - Annual Report 2008

Seven journalists were killed in the Americas in 2007 for doing their job, compared with 16 the previous year. Crimes against the media continue to plague countries where the media, sophisticated or not, is exposed to reprisals from organised crime and drug-traffickers. Mexico remains the deadliest country for journalists, with two murders in less than a month and three disappearances. The killings coincided with a large-scale federal police and army drive against drug-trafficking in the first half of the year. But state-level courts barely cooperated with the special legal unit to combat attacks on the media (the Fiscalía Especial de Atención a los Delitos Cometidos contra Periodistas - FEADP) set up in February 2006 but with few resources.

An example from Haiti

A journalist was killed in each of Peru (which broke its own record with about 200 physical attacks on the media), Paraguay and Brazil. In all three cases, the victims had been investigating the sensitive matters of drug-trafficking or police corruption. Justice was finally done (even if only partly) in Haiti, where the killers in 2001 of radio journalist Brignol Lindor and in 2005 of Jacques Roche were punished. Gang activity decreased, except in some suburbs of Port-au-Prince, such as Martissant, where photographer Jean-Rémy Badiau, who had witnessed gang score-settling, was murdered in January.

Only one of the six murders of journalists in Colombia could be attributed to their journalistic work. This was the killing of Elacio Murillo Mosquera, shot dead on 10 January in the Pacific coast province of Chocó while investigating armed groups in the region and after covering the demobilisation of a unit of the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC).

But demobilisation did not mean disarming and the AUC remained influential among politicians. Like their sworn enemies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who resumed sabotage and physical attacks on media premises in 2007, the AUC paramilitaries were formidable predators of the media, especially those critical of President Alvaro Uribe’s government, such as the Latin American TV station Telesur. Outbursts by Uribe against some journalists, such as the correspondent of El Nuevo Herald, Gonzálo Guillén, were sometimes followed by death threats as a prelude to enforced exile. Six journalists had to flee the country in 2007.

One journalist was killed in the United States, a rare event, when Chauncey Bailey, editor of the weekly Oakland Post, was shot dead on 2 August apparently because he had criticised the running of a local black community bakery. A suspect, arrested a week after the murder, confessed to carrying out the murder and then retracted.

Job-related motives were not certain in the four killings of journalists in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but seemed likely in the case of Carlos Salgado, of the Honduran Radio Cadena Voces (RCV), murdered in Tegucigalpa on 18 October in a very bad atmosphere between the media and the government. President Manuel Zelaya said that “if I was (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez, I would’ve shut down this station long ago.”

Public/private division

Zelaya was alluding to Chavez’ move against Venezuela’s oldest and most popular privately-owned TV station, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), which was forced to stop terrestrial broadcasting on 27 May, heightening the “media war” between the government and the hardline opposition since the failed attempt to oust Chávez in 2002. It marked the almost complete takeover of national broadcasting by a president with a permanent and compulsive need to communicate.

Chávez’ media obsession led to a proposed constitutional reform that would allow him to declare an indefinite state of emergency, including suspension of press freedom. But the proposal was even criticised by some of his supporters (as they had criticised the move against RCTV) and was defeated in a referendum on 2 December, but this probably will not end the “media war.” RCTV, now broadcasting by cable and satellite, has an uncertain future. The very violent referendum campaign highlighted the national division that the media has come to symbolise.

Will the Venezuelan situation spread to Bolivia and Ecuador? The closeness between Chávez and the presidents of Bolivia (Evo Morales) and to a lesser extent Ecuador (Rafael Correa) is deceptive. Both Andean leaders, with help from Chávez, promoted new public or community media outlets in 2007 to counter the influence of the traditional media that are mostly owned by big business and opposed to their policies. Both also began a constitutional reform (better handled in Ecuador) that has led to great polarisation of which the media is a part. But the Bolivian media, state or privately-owned, have often been unfairly accused of being on one side or other and physically attacked during many street demonstrations. Violence in Ecuador was limited to a few exchanges between Correa and certain media outlets, apart from threats against Telesur.

Government hostility towards the media was shown in Argentina, where President Néstor Kirchner completed his term of office without holding a single press conference. The media, which is not excessively polarised, is the target of brutality and abuses of power at provincial level.

Legislative progress

Press freedom is fragile in the Americas but managed to score some victories in 2007. Mexico decriminalised press offences at federal level on 12 April. A similar draft law presented in Brazil in December by pro-government federal deputy Miro Teixeira could put an end to the 1967 press law inherited from the old military dictatorship. In Uruguay, parliament approved a measure, drafted by civil society groups, to encourage and support community media. A similar bill is going through parliament in Chile.

In the United States, the last journalist held in prison was released in April after being jailed for refused to disclose his sources to a federal judge. The House of Representatives passed a “shield law” on 16 October giving journalists the right not to reveal their sources at federal level. Important exceptions are included however (as in Canada), especially concerning national security. President Bush, who dislikes transparency, signed into law on 31 December a new freedom of information act expanding public access to government documents, but this came two weeks after the CIA destroyed videotapes of prisoner interrogations in secret locations and at the Guantanamo detention centre.

25 journalists in prison on an island

The US military base at Guantanamo in eastern Cuba still holds about 275 prisoners, including Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who went on hunger-strike on 13 June as he began his sixth year in prison without being charged with any crime. He is very ill, including psychologically, and may be released shortly.

There is less hope for the 24 journalists in prison in Cuba, the only country in the region that does not guarantee basic freedoms. The handover of power to President Castro’s brother has not seen any improvement in human rights. The form of repression has changed from political trials to daily brutality. Twenty journalists held since the “black spring” crackdown of March 2003 continue to serve sentences of between 14 and 27 years in prison. Three others have been jailed since Raúl Castro took over.

Benoit Hervieu Head of Americas desk

Translations available

Introduction Americas - Annual Report 2008
Central America
Dominican Republic
United States

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Preface : Between impotence, cowardice and duplicity
Introduction : Press freedom faces dangerous elections and an olympic summer in 2008
2008 Africa annual report
2008 Americas annual report
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2008 Europe annual report
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