The first months of 2003 were very grim for press freedom in the region. The Cuban government took advantage of the imminence of the US invasion of Iraq to launch an unprecedented crackdown, arresting 78 dissidents, including 26 independent journalists, in less than a week. They were immediately convicted in sham trials and sent to prison for up to 27 years each. In just a few days, Cuba became the world’s biggest prison for journalists, overtaking Eritrea, Burma and China.
In Colombia, violence by the country’s warring armed groups against journalists continued. In the northeastern province of Arauca alone, one was killed, seven kidnapped and 16 forced to leave the region after being threatened. The 18 March killing of journalist Luis Eduardo Alfonso highlighted the inadequacy of the government scheme to protect journalists. Three more journalists were killed in April.
En Haiti, impunity continued for the killers of journalists. The report of the investigation by Judge Bernard Saint-Vil into the April 2000 murder of Jean Dominique, head of Radio Haiti Inter, was published on 21 March but did not say who ordered the killing. A month earlier, the station closed down after new threats to its staff. Since the beginning of the year, a dozen journalists critical of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide went into exile abroad, fearing for their safety.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez used the failure of the opposition’s anti-government strike at the end of last year, which various media joined, to launch a broad offensive against the press. Several privately-owned TV stations were threatened with closure, exchange control reimposed, endangering the import of newsprint, and a restrictive press law passed. This intimidation was accompanied by a growing media campaign against Chávez that included abuses of professional journalistic ethics.