The situation of press freedom on the American continent continues to face threats ranging from violence against journalists to the use of legal mechanisms, the adoption of restrictive laws and cyber attacks.
This was the conclusion of the 450 media executives and journalists who gathered at the 72nd General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) in Mexico City from Oct. 13 to 17.
Murders of journalists continue to be the most serious threat. Since April 2016, there have been 12 homicides in the region. Mexico is the country with the greatest number of murders with seven of the 12. To this point, there have been 118 murders of journalists and 20 journalists who have gone missing in that country since 2000.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who opened the General Assembly, said to be aware “that despite progress in recent years, there are still crimes against journalists that we must solve.”
The president said that the increase in violence against journalists led the country to create the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, as well as the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (Feadle) in 2012.
Peña Nieto said that the Mechanism has protected 452 people, of which 167 are journalists. He added that Feadle has “new legal powers to address and attract complaints against attacks on journalists” and that, to date, it has attracted 48 cases.
“The Mexican Government is the first to recognize the necessity of consolidating these instruments. We have the determination to adjust where it needs to be, and to change whatever is necessary so they fulfill the functions that correspond to them,” said Peña Nieto, who added that he hopes “recent structural changes […] allow us to bring down impunity.”
For years, this Mechanism as well as the work done by Feadle has received criticism from human rights organizations that consider them to have failed to fulfill their functions. Additionally, Mexico ranks eighth in the CPJ 2015 Global Impunity Index, which lists the countries where those responsible for crimes against journalists go free.
During the Assembly, Peña Nieto also signed the Declaration of Chapultepec, adopted by the Hemispheric Conference on Freedom of Expression in 1994, which established the 10 principles to ensure and protect freedom of expression.
But Mexico is not the only country in the region with high rates of violence against journalists and impunity. Colombia, for example, has recorded more than 100 unresolved cases of murdered journalists since 2000. Meanwhile, Brazil is one of the countries with the most attacks on journalists in the context of coverage of public demonstrations.
The murders, however, are the “tip of the iceberg” according to IAPA, which said that these occur after journalists have been victims of intimidation, attacks and harassment. In Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Panama and Venezuela, journalists and editors have been victims of threats. They come from drug traffickers and criminal gangs, as well as local, national and military authorities.
“With the timid reaction of the government authorities, when not involving their active participation in the intimidation of journalists, there is the creation of a climate that contributes to the aggression, and eventually, the murder of members of the press,” IAPA said in its conclusions.
The IAPA also recognized other mechanisms that hinder journalistic work. For example, it mentions the increase in reporters being forced to testify in judicial processes and attempts to force them to reveal their sources. It also mentioned countries where heads of state are directly involved in filing complaints against or criticized journalists; and places where official advertising is used as a reward or punishment depending on the editorial line of the media outlet.
Cuba and Venezuela remain concerned by restrictions on freedom of the press. The emergence of digital media on the island “is of concern to the government, which has increased the repression of them and, in an even more noticeable manner, represses citizen journalists.” The IAPA mentioned detentions, interrogations, threats and confiscation of equipment of journalists in this country.
Meanwhile, deterioration of freedom of expression is becoming increasingly apparent in Venezuela, according to the IAPA, which states that the country’s press suffers insults from political leaders, aggressions and robberies of equipment. Arbitrary detentions and restrictions on reporting demonstrate this deterioration. The most representative case of recent months is perhaps that of Braulio Jatar. The journalist has been detained since Sept. 3 after his website reported on protests against President Nicolás Maduro on Margarita Island.
But in recent years, the media in the region also have faced more innovative attacks in the form of cyber attacks, which according to the IAPA, have taken on an “alarming nature.” Media in Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago have been “seriously” affected by these types of attacks.
In that vein, the IAPA and Google launched Project Shield during the General Assembly in order to offer the media in the region a tool that can protect against these attacks.
During the Assembly, the 2016 IAPA Grand Prize for Press Freedom was formally given to the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors and Publishers (AEDEP for its acronym in Spanish) for its “continued defense of freedom of the press and of expression.”
Some of AEDEP’s activities for freedom of expression have been denouncing the Communications Law passed in 2013 and supported by the government of President Rafael Correa, which according to the IAPA has been used “to harass independent media companies and critical journalism.”
The IAPA is composed of more than 1,300 publications in the Western Hemisphere and aims to defend and promote freedoms of the press and of expression on the continent.
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.