Press freedom is generally respected in the region, though not at all in Cuba and is frequently violated in Colombia. Progress towards democracy that began with the fall of dictatorships in the 1980s continues slowly despite setbacks. The situation in Haiti improved sharply after the fall of President Aristide but is still very fragile. Anti-media laws have been passed in Venezuela and courts in North America are threatening the privacy of journalistic sources.
Twelve journalists and two media assistants were killed in 2004, up from seven the previous year, as the region faced an upsurge in violence against the media. Nearly all were murdered, so their deaths were premeditated and planned as a way to silence them and frighten other journalists.
Except for Brazil (2 journalists killed), Haiti (1) and Colombia (1 journalist and 1 media assistant), all worked in countries that had been peaceful for years - Mexico (3 journalists killed), Peru (2), Nicaragua (2), the Dominican Republic (1) and Ecuador (1 media assistant killed).
No journalists had been killed in Mexico for doing their job since 1997. The three who died in 2004 were murdered by powerful drug cartels that control the border area with the United States. To show support for the media there, Reporters Without Borders and the Fondation de France awarded their media prize in 2004 to the magazine Zeta, in the northwestern frontier town of Tijuana, whose investigation of drug barons cost the life of one its staff in June for the third time in 15 years..
In the Dominican Republic, Juán Andujar, of Radio Azua and the daily Listín Diario, was also killed by criminals he had exposed. But it was politicians who murdered journalists elsewhere.
In Nicaragua, Maria José Bravo, of the daily papers La Prensa and Hoy, was killed during local elections in November, apparently by a member of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party who accused the media of causing the party’s defeat. Journalist and former politician Carlos Guadamuz, of the TV station CDNN, was also killed on 10 February by an ex-member of the Sandinist Liberation Front apparently acting on his own. The two killings shook journalists in a country where none had been killed since 1978.
Investigations of the death in Peru of Antonio Rivera Fernández, of Radio Frecuencia Oriental, and Antonio de la Torre Echeandía, of Radio Orbita, focused on local politicians they had criticised. Their murders were part of the violence visited on the provincial press in Peru, as well as Mexico and Brazil, by local politicians and powerful local figures who object to the counterweight role of the media.
Argentina displayed the range of pressure and reprisals such people use to silence critics - harassment by police and courts, favouritism in handing out government advertising or access to official information, as well as threats and physical attacks.
Press freedom in such countries comprised a national media whose size largely protected it from violence and repression and the smaller, more vulnerable provincial and media that took the brunt of it.
Killers are rarely troubled
Elsewhere in the hemisphere, there was an encouraging fall in violence against the media. Attacks on it in Bolivia were fewer after the serious political tensions of 2003. Likewise in Guatemala after the heat of the 2003 presidential election, though the family of Hector Ramírez, killed in July 2003 by supporters of ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, were threatened and physically attacked when the former president was put under house arrest in connection with the murder.
A bid to kill Carlos Insua, boss of the TV station Telesistema, in Ecuador, cost the life of his driver in February 2004. An unknown group called the People’s Revolutionary Militias claimed responsibility.
Attacks on the media peaked when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled Haiti on 29 February and Ricardo Ortega, of the Spanish TV station Antena 3, was killed soon afterwards, but then they ceased. However the rule of law was not established and attempts to bring to justice the killers of journalists Jean Dominique, head of Radio Haïti Inter, and Brignol Lindor, of Radio Echo 2000, made little or no progress.
A journalist and a media assistant were killed in Colombia, where the toll was less than in previous years but where journalists’ working conditions did not change much. Drug traffickers, armed groups and corrupt politicians have very tangled relationships that make the media’s work as dangerous as ever and killers are rarely troubled. A trial for the August 1999 murder of journalist and satirist Jaime Garzón only served to clear scapegoats in the case.
But there was good news too. Three years of careful investigation in Costa Rica led to the charging of the suspected killers and masterminds of the July 2001 murder of Parmenio Medina, of Radio Monumental. Killers of journalists were arrested soon after the fact in Nicaragua, Peru, Brazil, and in Mexico, where local justice officials were suspected of working with drug traffickers and some murder enquiries were transferred to federal officials.
Laws about and against the media
Attempts to violate the secrecy of journalist sources, along with prison sentences for media offences, are bones of contention between the media and the judiciary in many countries in the region. Journalists in Uruguay, Ecuador and Honduras were given suspended prison sentences for libel. The United Nations holds that jail sentences for media offences are excessive punishment and likely to lead to self-censorship.
More than a dozen countries have laws protecting the reputation of public officials with prison sentences. These were considered to undermine the right to be informed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which said public officials are naturally subject to extra scrutiny in any society.
Instead of abolishing such laws, the outgoing president if Panama, Mireya Moscoso, pardoned about 80 journalists on 27 August who were under threat of imprisonment for libel. But in Venezuela, laws on media offences were tightened after President Hugo Chávez won a 15 August referendum confirming him in office. Three laws targeted the media, which were largely opposed to him. But in Brazil, a proposal to force journalists to join an official journalists’ institute was rejected by parliament. Such institutions are very often a way for the authorities to control journalists.
Justice officials also threatened the right of journalistic sources to privacy and the worst examples were in North America. In Canada, the home of a journalist investigating terrorism was searched in January and another, Ken Peters, was convicted of contempt of court in December for refusing to reveal his sources. Cases of this kind grew in the United States during the year. One journalist was put under house arrest on 9 December and at the end of the year, two others were still under threat of prison for the same reason.
Both countries have a long tradition of investigative journalism but without privacy of sources guaranteed in court cases, nobody with sensitive information will dare to confide in a journalist.
Cuba, the region’s only prison for journalists
Despite the release of seven journalists in 2004, including the well-known poet and dissident Raúl Rivero, the press freedom situation in Cuba remains disastrous. 22 journalists are still in jail and the country is the hemisphere’s only prison for journalists and the second biggest for them in the world, after China (with 26). All criticism of President Fidel Castro’s rule is a crime. Only the regime-controlled media, officially "at the service of the workers," is allowed.