In the framework of World Press Freedom Day, the Southern Voices Network and Reporters Without Borders presented annual reports on violations of freedom of expression, freedom of the press and access to information in Latin America
The year 2022 has been the most violent year for the press in the Latin American region in the last five years, according to the Sombra report [Shadow Report] by the Red Voces del Sur [Voices of the South Network or VDS, by its Spanish acronym].
Voces del Sur, a network of 17 civil society organizations that monitors, analyzes and reports on the state of freedom of expression, press freedom and the right of access to information in Latin America, presented this report commemorating its five years of operation.
The Network's organizations recorded 31 murders of journalists in 2022. There were also 1,953 aggressions and attacks against journalists in the region in the form of attacks, physical aggressions, attacks on infrastructure, destruction of equipment, and death threats, among others. At the same time, 20 cases were recorded under the new index of sexual violence.
"Unfortunately, the Shadow Reports from 2018 onwards have been characterized more by their similarities or continuities than by their differences. This year, the emphasis of the report has been to analyze trends in patterns of violence at the regional level. Through the analysis of the data that the Network has been able to consolidate in these five years of monitoring, we have found 10 patterns that seem not only to repeat themselves annually, but sadly seem to worsen or exacerbate year after year," Miguel Antonio Gómez, who is in charge of the report’s research and analysis, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
The patterns that have been worsening year after year and have become trends in the alerts documented and reported by the Network are: the resurgence of violence, increased violence in the midst of protests, stigmatization that incites more violence, the State as the main aggressor, the growing threat of organized crime, the inadequacy of existing protection mechanisms, the abuse of state power, laws and the justice system as instruments to silence, impunity and self-censorship, and exile.
The data of the VDS Network's Shadow 2022 report evidently reflect a worsening of violence compared to 2021. Three elements to highlight are the closure of news outlets, self-censorship and exile.
In 2022, hundreds of news outlets were closed, mainly due to arbitrary administrative and judicial measures. This is in addition to the massive media closures experienced during the pandemic years and the crisis of the media business model based on advertising.
"These two situations, one of violence and the other of precariousness, have led to a situation in which we could say that we are running out of journalists and media. Obviously, we’re exaggerating but already in countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela we have a situation that is beginning to seriously worry local organizations that are seeing the massive exodus of journalists and the large-scale closure of media outlets," Gómez said.
As explained in the report, the VDS Network, based on the methodological recommendations of the United Nations, has incorporated a cross-cutting gender indicator to document differentiated threats and attacks against women journalists or sexually diverse journalists.
"A 'Gender Alert' is issued when a violation of freedom of expression contains elements of discrimination based on gender, as well as physical appearance, sexuality, gender expression, gender identity, or the sexual orientation of journalists. Additionally, this year, the VDS Network has designed a new 'Sexual Violence' indicator to make even more visible the differentiated forms of violence experienced by women journalists and sexually diverse journalists," according to the report.
According to Gómez, the Network's organizations must better understand how violence against women journalists and sexually diverse journalists works, as it has special characteristics that distinguish it from violence against male journalists. "The main difference is undoubtedly the sexual or sexualized connotation that many of these aggressions acquire. We are talking about threats of sexual violence, but also that women tend to be less represented in the media, that they suffer sexist or misogynist comments that allude to their gender condition. It is also much more common to see that these [threats] involve the family or their intimate circle, etc," he said.
The researcher also believes there is probably a significant underreporting because identifying gender-based violence is not always simple. It depends fundamentally on the ability of the organizations that make up the Network to be able to "detect" these differentiated forms of violence.
According to the report, the three most lethal countries for the press in the Latin American region were Mexico, Honduras and Ecuador. In the case of murders of journalists, these have had an alarming increase in Mexico, from six cases reported in 2020 to nine cases in 2021 and 15 in 2022.
In general, in Mexico there are very high levels of stigmatization, and at the same time it is one of the most dangerous countries in the region for the practice of journalism, along with Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
Every 13 hours a journalist is attacked in Mexico. According to Paula Saucedo, Protection and Defense program officer at Article 19, this is due to several reasons. "It has to do with impunity for crimes against freedom of expression, which is almost 98%. Almost no crime is investigated, and of those that are investigated, the intellectual authors of the crimes are almost never found, nor is their motive known for certain. There is no reparation of damages either to the victims or to society, and this allows for more aggression," Saucedo told LJR.
"In addition, those who attack the press the most in Mexico are public servants and the greatest number of aggressions against the press are linked to corruption investigations, so it seems that it is a circle in which the press is attacked to silence it. It is a perfect context to attack the press," she added.
A worrying increase in violations of freedom of expression and press freedom has also been reported in Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, from organized crime groups. "Personally, this terrifies me because I see how these groups are penetrating and becoming organized and consolidating in the region, unfortunately often in collusion with local authorities, especially in vulnerable areas, far from the capitals," Gómez said.
"While the State continues to be identified as the main party responsible for violations of freedom of expression, the increase in alerts identifying drug trafficking and armed groups as responsible is chilling and these groups are the main perpetrators of the most heinous crimes such as murders," he said.
For Saucedo, one way to mitigate the risks is to create support networks for the protection and security of the press. Additionally, continuing to denounce violence. "Although sometimes it’s complicated in such hostile contexts, support networks among and for journalists are very important. We have seen that, throughout the history of Mexico and Latin America, joint efforts have pushed forward many social changes."
Another study on press freedom, the 21st Reporters Without Borders (RSF, by its French acronym) Global Press Freedom Index, released on Wednesday [May 3], also shows a deterioration of conditions for the practice of journalism in the region. According to the study, "the polarization and institutional instability that characterize several countries in the region have fostered hostility and distrust of the media."
The country that lost the most positions in the RSF ranking was Peru, which fell 33 positions and is now in 110th place in the ranking. The main reason for the drop was the widespread use of force by the authorities after the change of government in December 2022, when, about to be deposed, then-president Pedro Castillo attempted a failed coup d'état.
“Since the change of government in December 2022, the police have stepped up their use of excessive force against journalists covering arbitrary arrests, killings and violence during protests. In this context, the army has also spread disinformation and harassed journalists who do not toe the government line. The mainstream media have branded those participating in the December 2022 protests as terrorists and protesters, in turn, have attacked some of their reporters. Journalists have continued to be the targets of attacks by far-right activists since 2018, when journalistic investigations were published about the Odebrecht corruption case,” according to RSF.
Haiti dropped 29 positions, and appears in 99th place in the ranking. The security situation is the main reason. “Increasingly vilified and vulnerable, journalists have also been targeted by gangs for the past two years: they have been kidnapped or murdered with complete impunity. In 2022, at least six journalists were killed in connection with their work, making Haiti one of the region’s most dangerous countries for media personnel,” stated the RSF report.
There are also negative mentions of Ecuador (down 12 places to 80th), where the growing influence of criminal organizations has caused a significant deterioration of journalists' working conditions, and Mexico (down one place to 128th), where “the extreme violence of the cartels and their frequent collusion with local officials and politicians, has continued journalism’s destruction.”
In addition, the region lost its remaining member with a press situation considered positive: Costa Rica lost 15 positions, and went to number 23 in the ranking, with a status considered regular. This was due to the political situation: in 2022, the government of president Rodrigo Chaves “subjected some media outlets and journalists to verbal attacks, and some state entities refused to provide media outlets with public interest information,” RSF stated.
The positive change according to the organization happened in Brazil. The country rose 18 positions, and is now 92nd in the ranking. The reason for this was the change of president. “The departure of President Jair Bolsonaro, who systematically attacked journalists and the media throughout his term, has revived hopes of a return to normalcy in relations between the government and the press,” stated RSF.