Impunity up, press freedom down in Latin America, according to reports

By Isabela Fraga

With six countries listed without a free press, including three countries with some of the highest levels of impunity in the world for press crimes, Latin American freedom of expression is at its lowest levels since 1989, according to Freedom House's annual report, released on Wednesday, May 1, and the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) 2013 Impunity Index, published today, May 2.

In Freedom House's report, Paraguay and Ecuador fell from their previous press freedom rank of "Partly Free" to "Not Free" in 2012, joining Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Honduras. CPJ, meanwhile, ranked Colombia, Mexico and Brazil as some of the countries where criminal kills journalists with the greatest impunity.

The case of Ecuador is the most serious: its precipitous drop of 17 spaces during the last five is one of the most dramatic of the 197 countries analyzed by Freedom House. In 2012, restrictive government regulation over political news coverage during the recent elections and its withholding of official advertising dollars from private media organizations critical of the government were some of the motivations for the organization to characterize it as so restrictive. "The media environment in Ecuador became more polarized in 2012, as President Rafael Correa
and his administration continued to openly disparage and attack private and critical media," the report says.

Press freedom also weakened in Brazil and Argentina, which fell two points in the organization's ranking. Freedom House attributed Argentina's drop to the implementation of the country's new media law and numerous physical and verbal attacks on journalists critical of the government, which were up 250 percent in 2012.

Killings in Brazil

Despite holding steady at its previous ranking, Brazil lost two points in press freedom, falling to 44 from 46. "Brazil also suffered a two-point decline to reflect an increase in the number
of journalists who were murdered 
during the year, coupled with the influence of political and business interests on media content. Legal action against bloggers and internet companies and proposed cybercrime laws also posed threats to freedom of expression," explained the report.

The inability to solve nine cases of killed journalists in 2012 also landed the country in tenth place on CPJ's Impunity Index. "The vast majority of the victims covered politics or corruption, and worked outside of the country's urban centers," said CPJ about Brazil's the unsolved killings. Brazil ended 2012 as one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists, according to several organizations.

Besides the six countries in the Americas listed as "Not Free," according to Freedom House's report, 15 others (43 percent) were ranked as "Free" and another 14 (40 percent) as "Partly Free." Out of the hemisphere's total population, 38 percent live in countries with a free press; 42 percent in a partly free one; and 20 percent in countries without press freedom. However, the numbers may be misleading: "These figures are significantly influenced by the open media environments of North America and much of the Caribbean, which tend to offset the less rosy picture in Central and South America," the report observed.

Cuba and Venezuela continued to wallow in the lowest rankings for freedom of the press, "Not Free." Honduras and Mexico also warranted concern for their high levels of violence and attacks on journalists.

Paraguay's slide from "Partly Free" to "Not Free" is attributed to the parliamentary coup d'état that removed President Fernando Lugo from power. The new administration of Federico Franco fired 27 journalists from TV Pública and attempted to influence the television channel's editorial line.

Colombia and Mexico: Impunity

In CPJ's Impunity Index, Colombia tread water at the same rank as in 2012 and continues to be the country with the fifth highest level of impunity for crimes against journalists. But, the report does note one upside: "No journalists have been murdered for their work in Colombia since 2010. Improvements in the overall security climate have generally outpaced judicial gains."

In Mexico, meanwhile, 15 killings remain unsolved, with the majority of them blamed on organized crime. While the number of journalists killed as diminished during the last three years, CPJ concluded that this is due in part to "self-censorship that has taken hold in virtually every corner of the nation outside the capital."

Freedom House has published brief reports about each country analyzed. Click here to read the complete report (in PDF).

CPJ's Impunity Index is also available online here.

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.