Freedom of the press organizations warn of dark situation for journalism in Latin America

2016 was a critical year for the exercise of journalism in the world, according to the annual reports of three international organizations that promote freedom of expression and the press.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its initials in French) and Freedom House of Washington, D.C. published their respective ranks of press freedom levels and conditions for journalism in the world, while the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which is based in New York City, launched an analysis of attacks on journalists in the past year.

In Latin American territory, the situation is no better than in previous years. Twelve countries in the region are in the lower half of the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, six of which - Peru, Nicaragua, Panama, Bolivia, Honduras and Cuba - fell at least one from the previous year.

According to the RSF index, which includes 180 countries, Mexico and Cuba presented the worst conditions for journalists in Latin America in 2016. These nations ranked 147 and 173 on the list, respectively.

In Mexico, where 10 journalists were murdered last year, the press faces corruption, organized crime and impunity for crimes against representatives of the media, mainly in the states of Veracruz, Guerrero, Michoacán and Tamaulipas, according to the organization.

[Ed. note: Organizations have different criteria for including murders in their official tallies. Some organizations quote the number of murders in Mexico higher or lower than this figure.]

The CPJ report devoted a section to the case of Mexico, entitled "Edited by Drug Lords," which recounts journalistic censorship perpetrated by organized crime through attacks and pressure. In addition, the report points out that in the last decade 90 percent of the cases of attacks on the press in that country have gone unpunished.

For its part, Cuba is the only Latin American country among the 20 that make up RSF’s blacklist, which also includes North Korea, China and Syria.

“The state’s monopoly of news and information did not end with the death of Fidel Castro, who will be remembered not only as the father of the Cuban revolution but also as one of the planet’s worst press freedom predators,” RSF said in its analysis.

However, CPJ noted that in recent years the island has witnessed a growing number of bloggers and news sites offering a new journalism of investigation and opinion that encourages criticism, although these efforts continue to clash with the legal framework which restricts freedom of the press and access to information in the Caribbean country.

Venezuela is one of the countries where authoritarian governments use political and social upheavals as an excuse to exert repression on the press, according to the Freedom House report, which indicated that press freedom in the world fell to its lowest level in 13 years.

Journalists covering multiple protests in Venezuela suffer violence at the hands of authorities and demonstrators, while at least six international correspondents were barred from entering the South American country to cover demonstrations in 2016, Freedom House said.

Bolivia experienced significant declines in both the Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders rankings. President Evo Morales has publicly discredited the press by calling a media group investigating a corruption case in his government a “cartel of lies,” and blaming journalists for the negative outcome of the referendum that would allow him to contend for another presidential term in 2019.

“The administration of President Evo Morales targeted critical journalists with threats of prosecution,” Freedom House wrote. “Two reporters fled abroad to avoid possible detention.”

While the outlook for press freedom is bleak in the region, some countries show signs of optimism. Freedom House stressed that in Argentina the change of administration ended the war between the government and the press that characterized the regimes of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.

Under the administration of President Mauricio Macri, a law was passed last year that reorganized the Argentine regulatory bodies, which opens the possibility of having licenses of less biased media. Although the tangible results of that law remain to be seen, Freedom House said in its report.

However, Argentina continues to see concentration of ownership in the news industry, the organization said in its report. The media conglomerate Clarín and group La Nación, known to generally support Macri, dominate the national market, it added. Additionally, the decree issued by Macri, which later became law, "lifted restrictions on the number of broadcast licenses a media group can own," the report said.

In Ecuador, the media acquired by outgoing President Rafael Correa could enjoy greater editorial independence once the new administration takes office, the organization anticipated.

However, the CPJ report cited Ecuador among countries where censorship by authorities has reached the cyber world. According to the organization, tech companies like Twitter have been pressured to remove publications and documents on sensitive issues.

Such was the case of the journalist Bernardo Abad, who in July of 2016 has his Twitter account suspended after having published reports indicating that then Vice President Lenin Moreno had evaded taxes.

CPJ said in its report that the technologies that generated the global information boom are the same technologies that are now being used to suppress press freedom, whether to monitor, troll or block the flow of information.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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