10th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas opens with call for end to impunity in crimes against journalists

The 10th annual Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas kicked off the night of Sunday, May 20, with an examination of some of the major security issues facing journalists throughout the Americas. During the Forum's opening session, Frank La Rue, the United Nations' special rapporteur for freedom of expression, along with newspaper editors from Mexico and Guatemala, highlighted the risks of independent reporting in a region increasingly racked by violence, corruption and rampant impunity.

This year's Austin Forum, May 20-22 in Austin, Texas, is themed "Safety and Protection for Journalists, Bloggers, and Citizen Journalists," and is organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Latin America and Media programs of the Open Society Foundations.

Every one knows journalists are contending with press freedom and safety issues on a daily basis, said Rosental Calmon Alves, founder and director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and Knight Chair in Journalism & UNESCO Chair in Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. As such, the idea behind the Forum is "to articulate what to do about that. How can we take advantage of the networking between the organizations here, funders present here, and the journalists who are engaged in this continental, global concern about safety issues," Alves said.

José Rubén Zamora, editor and director general of the daily elPeriódico in Guatemala, noted the way independent, investigative reporting -- while prompting positive national reactions and results in terms of corrupt officials and criminals going to jail -- such reporting also unfortunately has resulted in backlash against the newspaper. For example, the newspaper has lost advertising and journalists have been the targets of campaigns to discredit them. Zamora also discussed the trauma he and his family have suffered as a result of his being kidnapped, and his family going into exile after their home was invaded and guns pointed at the heads of he and his family.

Heriberto Cantú, editor of the newspaper El Manana in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, likewise discussed the violence his newspaper and journalists have faced, such as with a shooting attack on the newspaper offices earlier in May. "I'm very proud, because we still managed to put out a good newspaper the next day," he said. Cantú advocated for more government transparency and citizen awareness as a way to help combat the violence -- Mexico is the most-dangerous country in the region for journalists -- and put an end to impunity. "Attacks against the press are attacks against freedom and democracy," he said.

La Rue pointed out numerous phenomena behind the growing violence against the press, whether organized crime, repressive governments, or weak governments co-opted or bought by organized crime. The real root of the problem, however, he said, is impunity, as governments are not investigating crimes against journalists and punishing those responsible.

"One case in impunity generates many more acts of violence because the message is that they can continue with violence," which is why "we have to insisit on the accountability of the state," La Rue said. "States must have the obligation to protect the most vulnerable sectors, the obligation to protect journalists and human rights defenders."

For example, Cantú noted that in Mexico, only one or two of every 100 crimes is ever solved or punished.

Besides violence and impunity, La Rue said the region also is suffering from a trend to criminalize freedom of expression, and bloggers and citizen journalists are especially vulnerable, he said. Calling Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa's $40 million lawsuit against the newspaper El Universo "tragic" and "absurd," La Rue said that a healthy democracy demands a critical press, and criminal defamation laws work against this.

Alves said that the point of this year's Forum is not just to discuss the problems of violence and journalists' safety, but to find practical measures to protect journalists. As such, the Forum continues Monday, May 21, with an opening presentation by Catalina Botero, special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Organization of American States, offering strategies to improve safety and protection measures to fight impunity.

More than just an annual conference, the Austin Forum is a network of organizations that focus on media development and training in Latin America and the Caribbean. Previous Forums have focused on such topics as Media Coverage of Migration in the Americas and Coverage of Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.