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Do more and better journalism to defend democracy amid authoritarian governments, webinar panelists say

“I believe it’s time to be brave, but not reckless as we don’t want to become martyrs, and keep finding information for citizens. We have to remember that journalism is a service to the community, a service to the citizen,” said César Fagoaga, general manager of Revista Factum of El Salvador, during the webinar “Journalism in Times of Polarization and Disinformation in Latin America.

For the Salvadoran journalist, this should be one of the strategies to confront authoritarian governments who misuse the judiciary and buy or invade news media to frighten and censor journalism. Fagoaga met with colleagues from Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela for the last panel of the day titled “Democracy and Press Freedom: The press’ role in defending democracy and freedom of expression.”

The conversation was moderated by Teresa Correa, a professor of Universidad Diego Portales in Chile. She started the discussion with a “dark” panorama, according to some panelists, of the situation of press freedom in many countries in the region, but particularly those represented in the panel.

Teresa Correa, Jennifer Ávila, César Fagoaga, Ewald Scharfenberg, and Cindy Regidor

Teresa Correa, Jennifer Ávila, César Fagoaga, Ewald Scharfenberg, and Cindy Regidor during the panel “Democracy and Press Freedom: The press’ role in defending democracy and freedom of expression.” (Screenshot)

 

Jennifer Ávila, co-founder of digital native outlet Contracorriente from Honduras, said the most serious problem in the country is the co-opting of the justice system by the Executive, which in the last instance is used as a “weapon against journalists.

She told the story of how in 2020—in the midst of the pandemic—Honduras approved a new Criminal Code that not only ratified defamation and calumnia (slander) as criminal offenses, but added new dimensions to this crime, such as financial defamation. It also makes it a crime to reveal information considered an “official secret.”

“It represents a threat to journalism and it’s obviously the first thing the powerful present as a warning,” Avila said. She added that this last crime is especially damaging to investigative journalism, which usually reveals information that should be public knowledge.

“There are several aspects in the new Criminal Code, which I believe is a practice that our justice systems have been doing to be able to silence the independent press, especially the uncomfortable press,” she said.

Ávila pointed out that this situation is also taking place in a context of a lot of polarization created since 2009, when there was a coup. This environment creates an unsafe environment for journalists, especially during campaign season. Journalists also lack state help for their protection, the journalist said.

“Right now we are close to the elections and, frankly, we also don’t have safety guarantees in the street, because the judicial institutions, I repeat, are co-opted and, obviously, instead of protecting the press they make it the enemy,” she said.

Fagoaga said the situation in El Salvador seems to be a copy of the Nicaraguan reality, with the added problem that the “loss of the democratic and constitutional order” that in Nicaragua happened over a decade, in El Salvador happened in two years, he said.

The journalist said this process can be seen in three phases. The first one was through a discourse of hate and the creation of enemies “to cover their own failings.” The more serious problem, he said, is that because these are violent societies this kind of discourse has more repercussions in real life. For instance, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES, by its Spanish acronym), led by Fagoaga, has already recorded more attacks in 2021 than in all of 2020, with two months left in the year. He also said the National Police is the main aggressor of journalists.

The second phase has to do with systematic blocking of information. In El Salvador, he said, no interview can take place which has not been approved by the presidency. The third phase is the use of State institutions to attack media and journalists, such as the use of TV and radio networks to attack them or the use of official Twitter accounts with the same goal.

All this took a turn for the worse when, on May 1, the National Assembly annulled the Supreme Court of Justice to install new judges, many of them allied with the Executive.

“This broke the constitutional order. Since then, we cannot say that we have democracy in El Salvador. There is no separation of the branches, there is control of the judicial apparatus,” Fagoaga said. “This is very important because in El Salvador and other countries many of us believe that democracy only means voting. No, democracy is much more than that.”

Following this break, comes the final stage, which involves “gagging and quashing the media and journalists,” he said. He believes we’re seeing the first signs, given that the authorities have started talking about the need to regulate the media, right after “journalistic investigations revealed the corruption of the [Nayib] Bukele administration.”

While in Nicaragua, after 14 years in power, Daniel Ortega has already reinforced his strategies and mechanisms to almost completely end the independent press in Nicaragua, but the country’s  journalists will not give up, according to Cindy Regidor. She works for Confidencial and is currently in Costa Rica. Just as El Salvador sees what’s to come when looking at Nicaragua, Nicaraguans saw it in Venezuela back then.

Regidor said the quashing of the media started in 2007, when interviews began to be restricted as well as statements to those journalists not considered allies. Thereafter began the purchase of most television channels and radio stations by the Ortega Murillo family, the use of official publicity as a tool of reward or punishment, and an increasingly closed news media circle.

However, in April 2018 the situation took a turn for the worse due to the massive protests against the Ortega administration. The suppression that resulted in more than 300 casualties, thousands of injured, hundreds of political prisoners and others who sought exile was also harmful to independent journalism. The most serious case was the murder of journalist Ángel Gahona, who was doing live coverage of one of the protests. Two other journalists were jailed for more than six months, Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda, and the news outlets 100% Noticias and Confidencial were confiscated.

These two news outlets are being censored in the open signal, so they have to stream through YouTube. The government has also used strategies like the customs embargo to prevent print media from receiving supplies. Like in Honduras, the abuse of the judicial power in Nicaragua creates laws that seek to censor the media even more, such as the cyber crime law. This law allows the government to penalize “fake news,” according to its own criteria.

The most recent presidential elections on Nov. 7 saw another wave of persecution of journalists and figures of the opposition, Regidor said. This led to more than 30 journalists being exiled, Regidor said, among them Confidencial’s executive director, Carlos Fernando Chamorro. In addition to exile, journalists have stopped including bylines with their articles so as to protect themselves.

Nonetheless, Regidor sees a positive development in that new information platforms have emerged, which seek to fight the information wall. She also said the closeness among journalists is another positive.

“It’s extremely important that, in the last instance, what we Nicaraguan journalists have done is “acuerparnos,” formed a single body, whether in Nicaragua or elsewhere,” Regidor said. “I see clearly this is a dictatorship and our audience trusts us. I dislike using war-like language, but I do believe journalism has become a last stronghold...in Nicaragua.”

Venezuela journalist Ewald Scharfenberg, co-editor of the digital native outlet Armando.info and who is currently exiled in Colombia, said that although it seems like a “bitter joke,” what his colleagues in Nicaragua and El Salvador are going through now, Venezuela already experienced it.

In his country,  the ‘chavismo’, already 23 years in power, in the first years did not have such dictatorial tendencies as in other countries. Although the important news outlet RCTV was closed, there were no other closures or jailings of journalists.

For Scharfenberg, Hugo Chavez’s regime used mechanisms he called post-modern, like controlling news media print supplies, onerous taxes for media, laws that indirectly harmed media or the use of national chains to interrupt programs they found inconvenient.

However, after Chavez died, plus the economic crisis, “control of the media takes on another guise, a guise perhaps more directly controlling and repressive,” Scharfenberg said.

Around 2013, the government began to buy main opposition media outlets like Globovision, Ultimas Noticias and El Universal. In addition, journalists started being brought to trial, and digital native sites like Armando.info, who were born to confront the purchase of traditional media, were blocked.

As he explained, at his outlet they have been able to detect blocking tools that mean that out of every 10 people who click on social networks such as Twitter, only one can reach his site.

“But I believe that aside from all these mentions of certain mechanisms and ways to control applied by the government of Venezuela, many of them similar to other countries, I think the main effect and harm done after 23 years in Venezuela, is the regime’s damage to the concept of truth, to the concept of fact,” Scharfenberg said.

The government tries now to impose just one truth, he said. Case in point is Alex Saab, a Colombian entrepreneur currently accused in Miami for money laundering and whom the Venezuelan government says is a diplomat. According to Scharfenberg, the government’s version would have prevailed were it not for the work of Armando.info, who had followed Saab’s trail years earlier.

Although the panorama seems really “dark,” as the panelists said, they firmly believe journalism must follow its course to maintain democracy, being one of the “last strongholds,” like Regidor said.

Ávila believes the most important thing is to keep doing more and better journalism, and becoming allies with other experts like lawyers.

“I believe one of the ways journalism can respond is to become more professional, but also work with other disciplines like in this case with law professionals and to be extremely rigorous in our editorial processes,” Ávila said. “We have also had to learn new technologies and social media, how hate speech happens on Twitter, Facebook. Maybe we’re digital media and maybe we were not as well equipped to truly deal with this.”

Fagoaga was in total agreement with Ávila about being rigorous, and added the need to be close to other journalists, but more than that, have the community understand the importance of journalism.

“[It is necessary] for people to see the importance of journalism. Many times we believe that freedom of expression is just the right we have to spread our ideas,” Fagoaga said. “The freedom of expression, which is a human right, is also the right we have to receive information. When they attack journalism, they are restricting our right to freedom of expression and that’s important, that we’re able to communicate that to people so they can defend us. Journalism is going to be safer if it becomes a single body with society, and that’s up to us.”

The webinar “Journalism in Times of Polarization and Disinformation in Latin America,” also featured the panels “Disinformation: How Journalism has Reacted to Waves of Disinformation” and “Polarization: Challenges for journalists who become targets in polarized societies.” Recordings are available in Spanish and Portuguese.

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