There was an erosion of press freedom in some countries such Colombia or Venezuela in 2002 while no marked progress was seen in any other country in the region. The Americas remained a continent of contrasts. Alongside countries where press freedom was broadly respected such as the USA, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay, there were nations such as Cuba, where it was denied outright by the government, and Colombia, where it was denied by a range of armed groups.
The effects of the 11 September attacks were still being felt in the United States. The Bush administration was careful to control its image in the war against terrorism. This resulted in growing restrictions on journalists at the Guantanamo military base, where the first photos of shackled detainees shocked the international community. To ensure that the war against terrorism was not perceived abroad as a war against Islam, the authorities considered resorting to disinformation before opting for the broadcasting of radio and TV programmes in Islamic countries that portrayed the United States as a country that respected their religion. In both the United States and Canada, the justice system viewed journalists as its auxiliaries and demanded that they hand over material that would help investigations.
Violence remained the leading threat to the press in Latin America. Nine journalists and media assistants were killed in 2002, 219 journalists were physically attacked and 122 were threatened. Colombia was again the most dangerous country for the press, with three journalists and two media assistants killed in 2002. The other countries where journalists and media assistants were killed were Brazil (2), Haiti (1) and Venezuela (1). Many cases of physical attacks during demonstrations were reported, especially in Venezuela (58) and Argentina (42), two countries that underwent major protest movements in 2002. Attacks and threats were also a way to limit the publication of critical articles and discourage journalists from doing their job. The censorship of the era of dictatorships has given way to self-censorship.
Acts of violence against the press would not keep occurring each year if the perpetrators did not enjoy almost total impunity. Haiti saw no progress in the investigations into the deaths of two journalists in which the finger points at the government’s associates. It was the government’s way of showing that those who target its detractors had nothing to fear. It was still unusual for someone to be convicted of killing a journalist in Colombia, Brazil or Mexico. On the other hand, new convictions or progress with investigations into the murders of journalists offered a ray of hope in Argentina, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Peru.
Colombia, where the largest number of threatened journalists was reported (45), was undoubtedly the country with the most self-censorship. The new upsurge in the war, after the peace process between President Pastrana’s government and the FARC guerrillas was broken off, underlay this decline in press freedom. There was much harassment and intimidation of the news media in the parts of the country where the army, guerrillas and extreme right-wing paramilitaries were fighting for control. With the election of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the advocate of a tough approach to the guerrillas, the Colombian government for the first time emerged as a threat to press freedom in its desire to restrict the foreign media’s access to parts of the country, an initiative that was finally blocked by the constitutional court.
The situation for the press also got worse in Haiti. Informal armed militia known as "popular organisations" continued to target journalists critical of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who for the first time began to be the subject of street demonstrations demanding his departure. Around 40 journalists were threatened or physically attacked, for the most part by popular organisations carrying out the government’s dirty work with complete impunity. Haiti also came close to losing a journalist in a killing again this year. On 25 December, two gunmen opened fire on the home of Radio Haïti Inter director Michèle Montas (the widow of murdered journalist Jean Dominique), killing one of her security guards.
There was also an erosion of press freedom in Venezuela, to judge by the number of journalists physically attacked (58) and threatened (16). Journalists paid dearly for the extreme polarisation of society between supporters and opponents of President Chávez. The president’s supporters staged many protests designed to intimidate the privately-owned news media and repeatedly attacked journalists covering demonstrations. In this, they were spurred on by both the president’s verbal attacks on the press and the radically anti-Chávez stance adopted by the privately-owned news media, which sometimes forgot the most basic rules of press ethics, to the point of endorsing the April coup attempt. The coup’s leaders, moreover, immediately cracked down on the pro-Chávez media. It was not known whether the person who fired the shot that killed photographer Jorge Tortoza on the day of the coup came from the ranks of the Chávez supporters or the coup’s backers.
Although less serious, the threats to press freedom remained worrying in Mexico and Brazil. The national print and broadcast media no longer encountered serious obstruction from the federal government in either country. On the other hand, two journalists were killed by underworld gangs or drug traffickers in Brazil. In Mexico, cases of harassment and threats against journalists continued to be common in the provinces where local politicians, officials and police still found it hard to accept the power of the press. The same problem was found in other large countries in the region such as Peru and Argentina. The government stopped harassing the news media in the Peruvian capital after the Alberto Fujimori’s departure, but attacks against the press continued in the interior. The provinces in Argentina have much autonomy and the local political class did not hesitate to protect their interests by drafting legislation that limited press freedom.
In the rest of Latin America, legislation posed more of a threat to press freedom than violence. In Panama and Chile, for example, the laws still punished insult and defamation with imprisonment. Twenty-one new complaints were filed on these grounds in Panama in 2002. The ombudsman said this anachronistic legislation was being used by government officials as a weapon against the press. Journalists in Costa Rica complained that self-censorship was forced upon them by laws that punished the quoting of offensive statements and put the burden of proof on journalists when they were accused of defamation. Journalists were subjected to judicial pressure to reveal their sources in Mexico and, less often, in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. Censorship was revived in Brazil by the judicial authorities that were given the job of controlling the information published about the different candidates in the general elections. Finally, in Guatemala, the constitutional court’s decision to suspend implementation of a law forcing journalists to join a journalists’ association was good news. On the other hand, it was still dangerous for journalists in Guatemala to investigate corruption or the human rights violations that took place during the 1960-1996 civil war.
In Cuba, the state’s monopoly of news was enshrined in the constitution, so all independently reported news was by definition illegal. Nonetheless, about 100 independent journalists grouped in a score of unrecognised news agencies tried to exercise the right to inform the public. The purpose of the repression to which they were subjected was to prevent uncensored news reaching the population on the island. They were constantly harassed by means of detention, threats of imprisonment, summonses for questioning by police, intimidation of relatives, physical attacks and telephone tapping. Three of them were arrested in 2002. Four others went into exile. The range of news media available to Cubans was limited exclusively to the official press, which was careful not to mention their existence or that of the opposition. The authorities showed no sign of weakening. The appearance of a dissident magazine on the island at the end of 2002 was the first challenge to the government’s news monopoly in several years.
Despite the erosion of press freedom in 2002 in Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti and Argentina, the news media continued to enjoy a reasonable degree of freedom in several countries such as Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay, where attacks against journalists and the media appeared to be isolated cases. These countries were evidence of the degree to which democracy has taken root in a continent where more than half the governments were dictatorships just 25 years ago. The emergence or the reinforcement of press freedom groups in Chile, Colombia, Peru, Salvador and Venezuela should help consolidate this tendency.