Freedom of Expression in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks

By Ricardo Trotti
Director of Press Freedom, director of the Press Institute, and assistant executive director of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA)

November 18, 2011

There have always been and there will always be abuses of press freedom and free speech, no matter the ideology of governments. However, authoritarianism is truly revealed by the amount and frequency of such abuses.

Today, the governments of Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega without a doubt attack the press most frequently and forcefully, and hence, they also attack democracy. These governments amend constitutions at their leisure and exercise control over the judiciary and the electoral process as it happened in Nicaragua just last week.

Governments such as these shut down media outlets, as exemplified by the shutdown of RCTV, five cable channels, and more than 30 radio stations in Venezuela. They prosecute journalists, such as in the cases of Emilio Palacio and the Pérez brothers in Ecuador. They promote their agenda through propaganda on state media channels and the organization of populist rallies, while refusing to hold press conferences. They ignore Inter-American Human Rights Court rulings and force human rights and press freedom activists into exile.

In the past, abuses such as these were common during the governments of Carlos Menem in Argentina, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico.

And I have not even mentioned how these types of governments engage in espionage of journalists. Serious cases were identified under the governments of Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Alan García of Peru and Néstor Kirchner of Argentina. Authoritarian governments also engage in discrediting campaigns against the press, as during the administrations of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Ricardo Martinelli in Panamá and Álvaro Colom in Guatemala.

Nowadays, these kinds of abuses are even more worrisome, because they are orchestrated using all the resources of the State.  Governments belonging to the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), led by Hugo Chávez, are good examples. Their populist formula to govern for the majority with complete disdain for representative democracy has polarized their societies and allowed them to turn their backs on the opposition. Without political opponents or a system of check and balances, these governments have made the press their main enemy. That is how they justify their attacks.

Of course, they also take advantage of media weaknesses, such as low credibility, media concentration, use of sensationalism, and conflicts of interest, as in Argentina, where two publications and the government are shareholders in the same newsprint factory, or in the case of Ecuador, where bankers own several television channels.

These governments are no fools.  They manage to carry out their attacks without breaching the law by including clauses regarding the responsibilities of the media within their countries’ constitutions. That is how the constitutional clause about “truthful information” came to be in Venezuela, with similar versions spreading later on to other countries. That’s why it was preoccupying when the newly elected president of Peru, Ollanta Humala, during a speech at the IAPA General Assembly in Lima a couple of weeks ago, compared journalists to members of the military and priests who, in his own words, “are bound to tell the truth.” 

The problem is that for these types of governments the word truth only means the official version of the facts. It is in the name of the official truth that they carry out crusades to, quote and quote, democratize the media, and enact press laws aimed at covering up corruption. That is how, for example, the Communications bill to be debated this week in Ecuador’s Congress was born. It arose from President Correa’s need to cover up the scandal caused by allegations that his brother Fabricio had gained multimillion dollar official contracts after Correa assumed his presidency.

Most press laws were created as a form of reprisal from those in power against the power of the media. This is the way in which Néstor Kirchner justified the enactment of the controversial Media Law in Argentina that gave the government more control over broadcast media. Before that, Chávez enacted the Media Social Responsibility Law. At first, he said the law was meant to protect minors from certain television content, but he then used it to shut down RCTV and put pressure on Globovisión. In December, the law was amended, making it a crime to criticize the government online and on social media.

Media law in Ecuador is even worse. It not only regulates the printed press and online media, but also it establishes an official body led by a majority of members of the Executive Branch to control media content. As in other countries, the law enables the creation of community-based media under equal conditions as those of publicly- and state-owned media. The new law, if passes, incorporates mandatory licensing, demands media to have code of ethics, and it will censor content considered to promote violence.

Although in theory democratizing communications is a good thing, in practice it has not been so. The reasons for this are: One, governments use public media as organs of propaganda, and two, governments can and have manipulated community media for their own benefit.

Thus, the proposal by the Workers Party in Brazil to enact similar press laws is of great concern. In Uruguay, President José Mujica also threatened to enact a press law, if the media did not stop publishing reports about violence.

Media laws are not the only ones that limit the existence of a free press. Evo Morales, for example, has enacted the Electoral and Anti-Racism law that also contains restrictions for the media. And in a number of countries, governments such a Correa’s refuse to decriminalize defamation laws. Without these laws, it would be more difficult for these governments to take journalists to court.

The use of these laws to punish journalists is exemplified by the dozen of court cases in Ecuador against newspapers such as El Universo or against journalists like Juan Carlos Calderón and Christina Zurita, co-authors of the book “El Gran Hermano” (Big Brother) about the scandal involving President Correa’s older brother, Fabricio.

It is demonstrated that, within the populist mentality, dissention and criticism of the authorities are considered crimes of opinion. These actions are punishable by imprisonment, multi-million-dollar fines, or forced exile as in the case of Emilio Palacio of Ecuador or Guillermo Zuloaga of Venezuela.

This persecutory system would not be complete without the official campaigns to discredit the media. For example, Correa dedicated seven national radio and television spots to criticize the authors of the book “El Gran Hermano”. And last week, he dedicated just as many spots against journalists and activists who had gone to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to denounce press freedom abuses.

The aim is to defy journalists publicly or to bring them to the courts to foster self-censorship. Correa is achieving this. According to the Andean Foundation for the Observation and Study of Media (Fundamedios), 70 per cent of journalists now practice self-censorship.

We have never before observed such a big move on the part of governments to control the media. Correa has created an empire of 19 official news media outlets. In Nicaragua, the government, or Ortega’s family, which in this case is one and the same, owns more than a dozen radio and television stations. The same thing happens in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina.

This concentration of pro-government networks allows to conduct campaigns to discredit journalists, such as the ones carried out by “La Hojilla” (The Little Page) in Venezuela and “6, 7 y 8” (6, 7 & 8) in Argentina. Authorities also use an “army” of cyber-militants that attack members of the opposition and journalists on social media venues, blogs, and traditional media websites, drowning them with insults.

The pressure on the media is not only political, but also economic. A widespread practice is the placement of official advertising in select outlets to punish those with opposing editorial lines. And in no country there yet exists a law to regulate this matter, in spite of the fact that the Argentine Supreme Court has required the government to enact one. Also, in countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, imports of products needed for the print media to operate are being blocked.

All of the above can be summarized as follows. Control of media content, the blockage of reports on corruption, and the fostering of self-censorship are the policies followed by many governments in the region.

And, as if this onslaught by governments, whose constitutional responsibility should be to protect freedom of the press, were not enough, we must also add two other forces that are on the increase: drug trafficking and organized crime.

We live in a climate of an unprecedented lack of public safety. It is the biggest concern for the People of all countries.

The lack of public safety has increased the levels of violence against the press and hence, we have seen an increase in self-censorship, further fostered by the existing impunity with which crimes are committed and the lack of action by governments to protect journalists.

Violence is no longer only concentrated in Mexico or on the border with the United States. Like drug trafficking, it has extended to other countries. This year, five journalists have been murdered in Mexico, but also five others have been murdered in Honduras, five in Brazil, and one in Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, respectively.

Violence and self-censorship not only affect traditional media reporters. In Mexico, for example, four people were murdered during the past two months in reprisal for exposing the activities of drug traffickers on blogs such as el “Nuevo Laredo en la Mira” (Nuevo Laredo On The Lookout), and on Twitter and Facebook.


Within this bleak climate, it is also good to point out to some progress and healthy trends.

There are many governments that are committed to freedom of expression, among them those of Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay.

Some of these leaders, perhaps for being journalists themselves, have a better understanding of press freedom issues and have taken important actions. Mauricio Funes of El Salvador has recently eliminated defamation from the list of criminal offences. Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia promised to increase broadband connections four-fold over the next two years.

In Brazil, there is an extensive anti-corruption campaign motivated by citizens through social media. This online mobilization, supported by the investigations carried out by traditional media outlets, is what prompted Rousseff to fire five ministers and enact the Access to Public Information and Transparency Law.

Finally a few days ago, Mexico’s Congress, through an initiative led by President Felipe Calderón, passed a constitutional amendment to make crimes against journalists federal offenses. This was a request that we at the IAPA had been making since 1997.

Other major changes should also make us feel optimistic. For more than 50 years, the traditional press has been unable to completely unmask the Cuban regime for its violations of freedom of expression.  Now bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez have found ways of doing so on the Internet.

In another development, as never before seen in the Americas, organizations dedicated to press freedom, investigative reporting, and alternative journalism have been created and grown in numbers.

This is all very well, but we, journalists, whether we come from traditional media or from new ones, still have to face several challenges:

According to a recent report by Freedom House, democracies in the region have weakened.  And according to Latinobarómetro, the credibility of the press is decreasing. At the same time, the popularity of governments that attack freedom of expression, such as those of Chávez, Correa, Ortega and Kirchner, is very high.

It is true that, for the first time in history, we now have Access to Information and Transparency laws. But it is also true that we, journalists, very rarely use those laws, and that corruption is not decreasing. And what is even worse, we have failed to educate people on how to use these laws.

We demand more ethics on the part of other professions. But it is a fact that very few media outlets have taken steps to improve working and professional conditions. Neither have we achieved contributions to the profession from related universities and communication schools.

Worse yet, many journalists and the media in general embark on political confrontations with governments, worsening the level of social polarization, forgetting that journalism is meant to practice journalism, that is, investigate and shed light on problems.

We inform more, we have more broadband access, but the question remains: Why are we no connecting better with people?

I hope that these facts and thoughts serve for the debate.

Thank you very much.