From discredit to censorship, what happens when power comes after the press in Latin America

  • By Suhelis Tejero*
  • March 26, 2024

Argentine President Javier Milei ordered the shut down of state news agency Télam in a move that seems to be the starting point to dismantle Argentina’s public network of media outlets, in which he has already intervened. Before the country’s congress, he has also stigmatized the press calling it the support of a “corrupt and decayed” system,  which media outlets live off of thanks to “official advertising and (bought) opinion leaders who look the other way or carefully choose who to accuse and who to spare.”

On the opposite side of the subregion, in Mexico, journalists’ personal data leaks have been brought to the fore this year. In January, an apparent hack to the government’s computer system revealed the personal details of over 300 communicators who cover La Mañanera, the daily press conference of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO).

To make matters worse, the president himself disclosed the phone number of Natalie Kitroeff, correspondent of The New York Times, in a country that is considered one of the most dangerous for journalists. AMLO confessed that it was not a mistake, and that he would do it again because the President’s “moral authority, political authority” superseded the right to privacy and the practice of journalism.

And just few weeks ago, the President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, accused the TV networks RCN and Caracol of “stupefying society” and of wanting to discredit him.

“When you listen to the stations all you find is stupefying content that puts Colombian society to sleep,” Petro said in a public event.

This discrediting strategy by those in power isn’t new and isn’t exclusive to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. Other countries, such as Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and more recently, Bolivia and El Salvador, exemplify how political power may come after media outlets in different ways to the extent of making them disappear.

León Hernández, professor at the Center for Communication Research at Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB), in Venezuela, clearly regards these actions as part of a political control strategy to generate fear, “because where there is fear, there might be self-censorship and censorship.” He warns that “there is a serious decline of democratic structures, institutionally,” and this has enabled some leaders, regardless of their political inclination, “to engage in a discrediting strategy against media outlets and journalists, with the straightforward intention of making truth relative, of shifting outlets’ trust and credibility structures to impact the fabric of public opinion configuration,” Hernández said.

The World Press Freedom Index presented annually by the organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that the subregion is far from improving its levels of freedom and protection of journalism – and still faces serious problems. The 2023 report indicates that practically everywhere in Latin America, situations such as simple obstacles to really serious threats are prominent. Barely four countries achieved satisfactory levels of press freedom in Latin America, oddly, Argentina being one of them.

Precisely after Milei announced the closure of Télam, Reporters Without Borders quickly sounded the alarm and explained that dismantling the public media outlet network is a real risk for pluralism in Argentina.

“It is a blow to journalism and freedom of information. We ask for the suspension of this brutal decision,” pleaded Artur Romeu, Director of RSF in Latin America in a statement published a few days ago.

The South American nation was shocked by the hostility of the implementation and not by the measure itself. Milei’s threats against the public information system and attacks on the press have been a key part of his repertoire since the electoral campaign, which he has maintained now that he is in power. Paula Moreno, President of the Argentina Journalism Forum (FOPEA), said that she was mostly surprised by how quickly the government’s agenda against the media has moved forward.

She added that they have also seen how the president’s attacks on journalists – sometimes with full names – have led to attacks, particularly on social media. Therefore, she is particularly concerned that official insults might transcend to “thoughtless situations of violence” for journalists, as well as self-censorship and even censorship. Moreno believes that Millei himself is unable to gauge the reach his words might have when he calls journalists liars or corrupt.

“Based on our role in the democratic process, journalism is as worthy of respect as our democracy. As with every kind of generalization, it is very concerning to classify journalists as corrupt or liars. There is no way to counteract the President’s words because the relationship is asymmetrical,” Moreno emphasized.

But if it’s raining in Argentina, it’s pouring in Mexico. There, official attacks and leaks have a more severe connotation. Already one of the most dangerous countries for journalism, figures show a total of 163 murders and 32 disappearances of journalists between 2000 and 2023, according to Article 19, an international organization that champions freedom of  expression. The territorial control of drug trafficking in several regions, as well as its infiltration in public structures, has resulted in impunity for crimes against press workers. That is why AMLO’s campaign to discredit the press from the Mexican Presidency adds more pressure to an already complicated situation.

In that regard, Pedro Cárdenas, Officer of Protection and Defense at Article 19 Mexico, said that they have seen how governments abuse the public forum to stigmatize journalists that are critical of it, calling them adversaries or enemies, contributing to the environment of violence.

“Even though violence is inherited from prior governments, this type of discourse doesn’t help to prevent it, in fact, it generates a cascade effect because not only the Presidency but also local authorities and even private actors resort to this discourse to justify violence against the press, stating that it is being paid by the opposition,” he said.

He expressed that is the reason why cases of violence endure, because governments have failed to create comprehensive public policies to prevent violence against the press and to protect journalists. But also, Cárdenas warned against the leaks of journalists’ details and the fact that AMLO claims that his political and moral authority was above Mexican legislation in terms of personal data protection.

The state of censorship 

Other countries in the region, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have a longer history of attacks and violations of freedom of expression and the press. These authoritarian governments are usually legally shielded against journalism, enabling judicial persecution. By mid-2023, Cuba’s government achieved a major feat: strengthening over 60 years of legal scaffolding against the press by passing the Law of Social Communication, which gives the government even more power to control or shut independent media outlets.

In Venezuela, from his early days, President Hugo Chávez adamantly accused the media of being allied with the opposition and of being enemies to his revolution. In 2001, the Law of Content, later turned into the Law of Social Responsibility on Radio and Television (Resorte, for its Spanish acronym), was the legal grounds to justify the closure of media outlets.

With administrative decisions issued by telecommunications regulators, Chávez’s government closed dozens of television networks and radio stations, including RCTV, in 2007. Since 2003, at least 300 radio stations have ceased operations by order of Chavismo.

And current President Nicolás Maduro has not toned down: groups close to Chavismo have bought independent media outlets, while the government blocks foreign digital media outlets and television networks. The most recent case is the German broadcaster DW, which can’t be seen on Venezuelan television on government’s orders, after it aired a feature criticizing Maduro’s administration.

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s regime has also spread a discourse of hatred against the press, which has entailed detentions, banishment, forced exile, as well as censorship, closures of media outlets and seizures. The government has not hesitated in harshly insulting journalists, calling them servants, slaves, freeloaders, traitors to the motherland and liars. Since 2018, the year of the protests that radicalized the government, 1,200 attacks against the press have been reported.

Hernández, at UCAB, indicates that these smear campaigns have a clear intention: to tear apart the outlets’ credibility, spawning a polarized society in which only extremes are valid. And the danger in all of this, as per the communication professional, is that social understanding might be broken.

Bolivia, since the successive presidential terms of Evo Morales, has also waged a smear campaign against the media, which has continued in the current administration of President Luis Arce. Some of the official tactics range between insults to reducing the State’s advertising as a mechanism of political pressure. The government produced a documentary entitled El Cártel de la Mentira, as the media is referred to by those in power. And not all can stand firmly against it. By mid-2023, the newspaper Página Siete had to close its operation after cuts in state advertising caused financial hardship beyond repair.

And most recently, in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele affronted journalists and accused media of being his enemies due to critical features published about agreements his government reached with gangs. As a concrete measure, it passed a reform of the Criminal Code which sets imprisonment penalties of up to 15 years for journalists who publish information related to gangs and that might drive panic or uneasiness in the population.

The critical issue of these campaigns is not just the decrease in freedoms, but the continuous clash between power and media outlets. Several Latin American governments that have already crossed the limits of authoritarianism consolidate themselves as owners of absolute truth, to the point of considering those against it as traitors to the motherland; whereas others that haven’t gone that far seem to be willing to play with fire.

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* Member of the CONNECTAS Hub