Examining the effectiveness of state protection mechanisms for journalists in Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala

On the second day of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ 10th annual Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas, a panel of experts spoke on the role of state protection mechanisms for journalists in ColombiaMexico, and Guatemala.

Moderator Ewald Scharfenberg, the director of IPYS in Venezuela, said that he was surprised to be asked to moderate a panel on the subject because in Venezuela such a thing as state protection for journalists is unthinkable. “To think that a state would create these programs to protect journalists who they view as the enemy is amazing, but it is good to see that it is possible,” he said.

Natalia Torres, the co-author of a Center of Studies of Freedom of Expression (CELE) report on protection for journalists, said that although Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala have all made great legal strides by creating journalist protection programs, weaknesses are evident in the implementation of the measures in all three countries. In each case, but particularly evident in Guatemala, there is a general problem with the lack of coordination between government agencies when investigating cases. Torres suggests that a single database that documented crimes against journalists would be helpful in achieving a level of coordination.

Leonarda Reyes, founder and director of CEPET in Mexico, said that Mexico has a spectacular window of opportunity in this period that directly follows the creation of a state protection mechanism in the country. She said that Mexico must learn from other countries in the region like Colombia, when working out the details in implementing the program. Reyes acknowledged that the creation of the program is the easy part, and that the difficult task of ensuring the effectiveness of the measures is still to come.

“Guatemala has broken the cycle of impunity, has shown that cases can be resolved. I don’t know of any other Latin American country who can say that they have tried and convicted members of the super-elite as Guatemala has done,” said Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, the director of online newspaper Plaza Pública. Rodriguez said that despite this advancement, journalists in rural Guatemala still face considerable threat. He said that in order to ensure press freedom, more needs to be done to explain the role and importance of journalists to the general public.

Andres Morales, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation in Colombia, said that Colombia currently provides physical protection to 67 journalists, but that more needs to be done to prevent risk, and conquer impunity. Morales says that it is impossible and impractical to provide every journalist in the country with physical protection such as body guards and armored cars. He said that at this point the program needs to be less reactive, and more proactive in order to help more journalists.

Questions from the audience raised doubts about the effectiveness of state protection programs in countries that historically have low trust levels between journalists and governments, and expressed a need for a report of “best practices” that clearly shows what types of protection programs work and what types don’t. See this Storify for more reaction to the panel about governments' safety measures for journalists.

See here for more coverage of this year's Austin Forum. 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.