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International - Americas summit16 April 2009

Leaders urged to give joint commitment to press freedom

Reporters Without Borders hopes the two-day Summit of the Americas that begins tomorrow in Trinidad and Tobago will result in a firm commitment to media freedom and human rights by the participating presidents.

It will be US President Barack Obama’s first time at a gathering of the hemisphere’s leaders and comes on the heels of an official visit by him to Mexico. There has been evidence of a stronger commitment to press freedom in the United States since his 20 January inauguration and his administration, which wants to break with its predecessor’s practices, is seeking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Noting this new political will, Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Obama on 17 February expressing the hope that the country of the First Amendment will act according to its principles as regards three western hemisphere press freedom issues in which it is directly concerned.

The first involves Mexico, where journalists’ safety is threatened most. A total of 46 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000 and drug cartel activity is not solely to blame. The Obama administration is dispatching some 400 FBI agents plus 100 agents from the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to help combat the drug trafficking in Mexico and secure the border region.

Journalists on the Mexican side of the border often face a choice between death and going into exile. What happened to Armando Rodríguez Carreón and Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, two journalists working for the Ciudad Juárez-based daily El Diario, dramatically illustrates this dilemma. Rodríguez was gunned down on 13 November 2008 during a surge in armed clashes between the cartels and the Mexican federal authorities. Gutiérrez was held by the US immigration authorities for seven months after fleeing across the border on 15 June 2008.

The fight against impunity depends on the determination of the Mexican federal authorities and their ability to control their own agents. But a much more ambitious US commitment to arms control is vital to security efforts in the region. It is the United States that supplies organised crime with firearms in Mexico and Central America, where criminal violence has reached an alarming level. Two journalists, one in Guatemala and one in Honduras, have been killed there since the start of the year. Both of them were trying to cover violent crime.

Constitutional principles that are taken for granted are stripped of any meaning by the predatory activity of drug traffickers and paramilitaries in other parts of the America, especially Colombia. Reporters Without Borders shares the view of some legislators in Washington that the US taxpayer’s generous funding for the Plan Colombia war on drugs should be adjusted according to the Colombian government’s real efforts on behalf of human rights.

Complicity in dangerous activity and irresponsible statements by President Alvaro Uribe have imperilled journalists who do not enjoy his favour and pushed them into exile. One of them, Hollman Morris, producer of the programme “Contravía” on Colombian public television’s Canal Uno, recently testified to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the US congress in Washington.

The third hemispheric issue concerns the only country in the region with no democratic institutions, Cuba, whose 200-odd political prisoners include 23 journalists. Reporters Without Borders has called for an end to the US embargo - which has been in place since 1962 and which has penalised the Cuban people while allowing the regime to reinforce its repression of dissidents - and supports the embargo-easing measures adopted by the Obama administration.

When Raúl Castro took over as president in 2008, Cuba signed two UN human rights conventions, thereby giving an undertaking to the international community. But this undertaking has not been translated into any action. The Latin American countries that want to bring Cuba into the regional integration process should attach clear conditions.

Reporters Without Borders hopes that the issue of freedoms in Cuba will be the subject of a debate and resolutions agreed by the countries represented at the summit. Respect for a country’s sovereignty does not in any way preclude reminding it of the obligations which it decided of its own accord to assume.

Enshrined in the constitutions of all of the hemisphere’s countries, freedom of the press and freedom of expression would acquire more substance if all the counties brought their legislation into line with the principles of the American Convention on Human Rights. This includes the decriminalisation of defamation and insult, adopted by Mexico in 2007 and currently being debated in Uruguay.

These offences often continue to be punishable by imprisonment and the legislation encourages abuse of authority. It is time to dismantle such hangovers from the military dictatorships of the past. Argentina is in the process of doing this with a new law that will democratise broadcasting.

Press freedom, one of the linchpins of democracy, often results in critical coverage that some elected governments have difficulty tolerating. The “wars” sometimes waged by the media in countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela do not justify an attitude of mistrust towards the entire press in the name of any ideology.

14 March 2008 - Cuba
No surrender by independent journalists, five years on from “black spring”
5 June 2007 - Venezuela
Closure of Radio Caracas Televisión consolidates media hegemony
22 May 2007 - Colombia
Paramilitary "black eagles" poised to swoop down on press

Americas press releases
3 June - United States
President Obama urged to raise freedom of expression in his Cairo speech
29 May - Venezuela
Open letter to President Hugo Chavez to protest about official hounding of Globovisión
27 May - Mexico
Crime reporter abducted and killed in Durango state
20 May - Cuba
Anyone can browse the Internet... unless they are Cuban
15 May - Cuba
Journalist gets three-year jail sentence

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