The American continent is still a land of contrasts for press freedom. Generally respected, it is flouted on a daily basis in Cuba, Colombia and Haiti. In several countries the press has had to face an upsurge of attacks, often linked to political crises and that occasionally turn very ugly, as in Bolivia. Throughout the continent legislative reforms are still needed to ensure there is complete press freedom.
In Cuba, President Fidel Castro has tried to crush dissidence through a major dragnet operation through its ranks. Seventy-five dissidents were arrested for "acts against the State". Among them were 27 independent journalists, of whom the best known was Raúl Rivero. Their crime? To have published articles abroad and to have met US diplomats. Their weapons? Typewriters and pens seized in searches of their homes. In perfunctory trials in which they were denied a proper defence, they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison. Their colleagues who are still at liberty have been under threat of joining them in jail. The crackdown provoked international protest but consolidated the government’s news monopoly.
In Haiti too, the state of press freedom is extremely worrying. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sows terror among his detractors by allowing acts of violence to be committed with total impunity. Journalists have been the first in line. Two murders of journalists in 2000 and 2001 have gone unpunished. In 2003, some 40 journalists were threatened or attacked by "chimeras", thugs recruited by the government from the shantytowns to carry out its dirty work. At the end of the year a rising number of demonstrations calling for President Artistide to resign were accompanied by an increase in attacks on the press.
With five journalists killed in Colombia in 2003, this country remains the most dangerous in the region for the profession. Four journalists were killed after exposing instances of corruption or fraud implicating local politicians and even collusion between them and armed paramilitaries of the extreme right or communist guerrillas, who control or seek to control whole regions. Subjected to their constant intimidation and that of the army, newspaper staff are too cowed to effectively inform the public. Threats, assaults, kidnappings and murder are still the daily lot of journalists. Moreover, since the adoption of an anti-terror law that threatens the protection of sources, the Alvaro Uribe Vélez government itself is also becoming a potential threat to the press.
In the United States, the attitude of the administration of President Bush towards press freedom varies according to whether it relates to American territory or beyond its borders. In the first instance, the situation is satisfactory overall. However the US Army was responsible for the death of five journalists in Iraq and the work of journalists seeking to report on the Guantanamo prison in Cuba where terrorist suspects are held, is very closely monitored.
Impunity still at work
At least three other journalists were killed while doing their job in Brazil (2) and Guatemala (1). While in Colombia repeated murders can be explained by the continuing impunity enjoyed by killers, in Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico, genuine investigations have led to the arrests of suspects, even to trials. In Chile and Peru, some investigations have been reopened into old cases. These incidents of genuine progress remain however fragile. In Argentina, the killers of photographer José Luis Cabezas obtained a significant reduction in their jail terms, legal yes, but baffling in terms of the trauma caused the by the journalist’s murder in 1997. In Brazil, a journalist’s killer won a surprise release just three months after being sentenced to 18 years in prison.
In several Latin-American countries, the press has had to pay the price of political instability. In Bolivia and to a lesser extent in Peru, journalists were caught up in the climate of protest. Several media and journalists were attacked or threatened, mainly by security forces trying to break up rioting that led to the resignation of Bolivian President Sanchez de Lozada. In Guatemala, the presidential election campaign saw a large number of physical attacks on journalists - one of whom was killed - linked mainly to the controversial candidacy of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt. In Ecuador, rather than respond to charges that his campaign was financed by a drug-trafficker, President Lucio Gutiérrez chose to threaten legal action against the daily El Comercio, that made the revelations.
Once again there is a marked difference between the powerful national press which no longer comes in for serious intimidation and the local or regional press which is still locked in conflict with local politicians, officials or police, who react badly to criticism.
In Mexico, Argentina and Peru, the majority of assaults have been aimed at local media. In Brazil, one of the two journalists killed worked for a radio station in a town in the north-east of the country. Sadly, the national press does not always demonstrate solidarity with colleagues in the regional press and these press freedom violations sometimes pass unnoticed.
Venezuela remains a special case. There were more than 80 incidents of attacks or threats against journalists, mostly during the general strike against President Hugo Chávez, in January and February. Although most of them were down to supporters of the president, angry at the anti-Chávez stance of the main media, there were a few attacks against pro-government media. The numerous threats proffered by the government against the press following the opposition strike were not carried out and press freedom had recovered a precarious stability by the yearend.
Protection of sources under threat
Legislation in several countries reflects an unfinished democratisation process. In Panama, Chile and Ecuador there are laws that still protect the "honour" of officials and politicians despite a statement adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) which has called for their removal. In Costa Rica, the press has spoken out against the inhibiting effect of the criminal code that punishes the publication of insulting remarks. In the Dominican Republic three journalists were arrested after criticising President Mejía. Running for a further term in 2004, he appears to have won control of the biggest independent press group by bankrupting its owner.
In South America as in the North, protection of sources is still under threat. In Paraguay and Chile, journalists are summoned to reveal their sources. In the United States judges threaten to imprison for "contempt of court" those who refuse to identify their informers. Finally, in Canada police still see journalists as "representatives of the law" and seek search warrants to seize pictures from newspapers, which they consider useful to their investigations.
Régis Bourgeat, head of Americas desk, Reporters Without Borders