‘It’s a complex region, but with a very vibrant press’: Carlos Lauría, executive director-elect of the Inter American Press Association

For Argentine journalist Carlos Lauría, promoting freedoms of the press and of expression has been his mission for the past 20 years. After being a correspondent in New York for Argentine magazines, he became involved in this world that has led him to different organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Open Society Foundations, among others.

Because of this experience, when he had the opportunity to join the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), a non-profit organization "dedicated to defending and promoting freedom of the press and expression in the Americas," he felt "a special motivation" to apply for the position of executive director. And indeed, after a search process lasting almost five months, on Aug. 30, the IAPA announced that as of Nov. 12, Lauría will replace Ricardo Trotti, another journalist who has been linked to the IAPA for 30 years. This will be a "great challenge" for Lauría due to Trotti's "outstanding" trajectory in the organization.

"I have an enormous responsibility because I’ll be replacing a person who has done an outstanding job and who is a key figure for this organization. It’s a great challenge," he told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

Lauría, who technically joined the IAPA on Sept. 1, will use this time to get to know the team and the organization better, as well as to seek with the organization's authorities the best ways to not only promote press freedom but also to look for solutions to the different challenges facing media: from artificial intelligence to the business model crisis.

In an interview with LJR, Lauría talked about his future work in the organization, the main challenges ahead and his optimism of working in a region with a "vibrant press."

LatAm Journalism Review (LJR): You have a long history at press freedom organizations. What was the main motivation for you to take on this position?

Carlos Lauría: First of all, the central mission of the Inter American Press Association is intrinsically related to the task to which I’ve dedicated myself for the past 20 years. That is, the central goal of promoting and defending freedoms of the press and of expression, combating censorship, denouncing abuse ranging from murders, judicial attacks, physical attacks, lawsuits, laws that restrict journalists’ work.

But apart from that, I believe that today the IAPA is at the intersection of some of the main problems affecting media and press freedom. First of all, press freedom has been in a very steep decline in recent years. Let us not forget that the previous year, 2022, was the deadliest year in recent years in the hemisphere in terms of murders of journalists.

Judicial harassment is reaching extremes, with journalists not only being sued for traditional crimes such as defamation, but now in Guatemala, the president of the IAPA in Guatemala, José Rubén Zamora, has been convicted and imprisoned for more than a year, accused of trumped-up charges of money laundering, fraud and blackmail. [...] In other words, we are seeing increasingly sophisticated forms of censorship, in some cases quite crude.

But it’s not only the issue related to the decline of freedom of expression, it’s also the possibility that in many countries of the region citizens cannot obtain information to make decisions that are crucial for their lives because there are many regions of Latin America, from Mexico to the south, which are areas where communities are uninformed or have been silenced [...] areas where investigative work is already impossible. gReporting on basic issues of crime, corruption and drug trafficking are red lines. This results in a situation where there are entire communities that are uninformed. Uninformed communities are less democratic communities, no doubt.

Add to this the economic crisis of media, which limits their abilities to investigate and inform. [...] Media sustainability is another key issue where IAPA has a very important role to play.

LJR: What is it like to step into the role of director in this context you describe? What will your role focus on once you assume the position of director?

CL: First of all, I would like to highlight the distinguished career, I would say outstanding, of Ricardo Totti, who has been working for the IAPA for three decades, and has managed to lead through this very tumultuous and complicated stage with great responsibility, with very, very great ability and with great success. That is to say, I have an enormous responsibility because I’ll be replacing someone who has accomplished an outstanding endeavor and who is a key figure in this organization.

Now, clearly, this is a huge challenge. My task will be to work with local partners, to work with the president, with IAPA authorities, to work together on these issues of denouncing abuses against press freedom, to talk about the issue of sustainability and how the crisis limits the capacity of media and how to find ways out.

But all this takes place in a context where the public discourse is tainted, highly contaminated, because the manipulation of information created lies and false news, as you know, circulates faster than facts. And this then only serves to polarize, to create more difficulties for media and obviously this has obliged us to reinforce fact-checking mechanisms. And that’s another challenge facing media: how to address the issue of the spread of false news and the manipulation of information. That brings me to another problem, clearly identified by Carlos Jornet [chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information], which is artificial intelligence.

As Jornet clearly said, artificial intelligence has two facets. First, the opportunity for media to use these tools for innovation, to create new products, to automate things that will perhaps allow journalists to engage in in-depth journalism, investigative journalism.

But, at the same time, there is the issue of the dangers it represents because there are risks with artificial intelligence that disinformation could multiply more to be present more than it currently is, that there could be greater manipulation and that there could be some kind of control over journalists and media. This is an issue that I think is also worth mentioning and on which the IAPA has already held debates and a long discussion in its last meetings.

LJR: Within this context of defense of press freedom, there is an issue that appears, perhaps tangentially, as a particular challenge for media and that is credibility and trust on the part of the audience. What is it like to face this challenge of defending and promoting press freedom from an organization made up mostly of traditional media, which are in turn the ones that are experiencing this crisis in the strongest way?

CL: I think that’s a good point, Silvia. Public trust and the credibility of journalists in general has declined. But there are contributing factors, such as political polarization. Because there are already many leaders, many of them elected through the popular vote, who have chosen the press as their enemy, as an indirect opposition, as many say. And the use of propaganda media that come out of the State, which should represent the interests of all citizens, but are used as a megaphone to carry forward the attacks of leaders and governments against media, have contributed to that lack of public trust, no doubt.

For example, in the case of Ecuador, former President Rafael Correa spent ten years using all kinds of resources at the service of the State to denigrate the press, to disqualify it, to insult it, to undertake measures, with censorship, with a clearly regressive law. And this constant diatribe and vilification of the press and the media still permeates Ecuadorian society. Journalists and the media still suffer from that brutal onslaught. So therein lies the issue of political polarization of populist governments.

Tres hombres sentados en una mesa con micrófonos al frente presentando un informe.

Carlos Lauría, while being a senior consultant for CPJ, talks in a press conference during the launch of the report "Ecuador on edge" on June 28th, 2023, in Quito, Ecuador. Next to him is Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director of CPJ, and César Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios. (Photo: Courtesy Fundamedios)

Obviously, trust must be rebuilt and media are doing a very important job. Efforts are being made to make coverage more transparent and to emphasize quality journalism. But what we have also seen, and we have to be fair about this, is that during the pandemic people turned to media, as rarely before, in search of information, in search of being able to see what was happening. And media became a very important conduit for information among the public. Clearly, as a result of economic pressures, media have been suffering. And as I was saying, this has reduced the coverage of local news and the emergence of news deserts, which also has serious implications for democracy and civic participation. Something that the IAPA has been working very hard on is [to seek] another viable model to support local journalism and maintain solid coverage.

LJR: The IAPA, in its mission to promote press freedom, is also recognized for inviting States to commit themselves to statements such as the Chapultepec Declaration, which is arguably one of the most complete on this issue – in addition to the commitments made by each State. Each year, new governments join as signatories or ratify their commitment to the declaration. How can we ensure that this commitment does not remain a mere signature but becomes a serious commitment? Especially if we take into account the context of political polarization, often incited by governments themselves, as you mentioned.

CL: It seems to me that the principles of the Declaration of Chapultepec are fundamental for a democracy with a free press, with an aggressive debate of ideas, with the possibility for citizens to have access to information, that there be no silenced areas, that there be informed communities. It seems to me that the spirit that should prevail in those who subscribe to the declaration is precisely to recognize these fundamental principles. [When these principles flow] free journalism can spark debate on the main issues that affect societies in particular and that citizens have access to important information that allows them to decide for whom to vote, very important issues in health matters or very important issues in security matters, fundamental issues of public works.

But it is also a fundamental tool for public policy makers, because they are often informed by what is published or broadcast on radio and television. Therefore, in countries and regions where the press is muzzled, not only is the possibility for citizens to access information that is fundamental for making decisions in their daily lives affected, but for those in charge of public policies, the lack of information and the impossibility for the media and journalists to do their job is also an obstacle.

In any case, there are governments or government administrations that subscribe to [the declarations], but then do not respect some of the principles or decide to go in the opposite direction. That is why a commitment of this nature is important in order to be able to verify that these commitments are effectively met.

LJR: Based on all your previous experience working in the region, what do you believe is the greatest challenge at the country level?

CL: In general, it’s a complicated region. Clearly one of the issues, perhaps the most serious issue affecting the press in the region and in the world in general, is that of lethal violence. I said at the beginning of the interview that 2022 was one of the deadliest years in three decades. Although this year there have not been as many murders as the previous year, a high number of journalists have fallen in the course of their work. Therefore, it is an issue that does not affect only one country. But obviously, as Michael Greenspon [IAPA President] said at the 2023 mid-year meeting, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are the countries that have most persecuted and forced journalists into exile and have imprisoned journalists.

It is a complex region and there are different problems affecting different countries. Again, I believe that the issue of violence in Mexico, in Central America, in Colombia, in Brazil, [and] in Paraguay are very serious problems. Therefore, we are talking about a complexity of issues and problems that make this region one with very serious issues.

But it’s also [a region] with a very vibrant press, I want to emphasize that, a very vibrant press with young investigative journalists doing a remarkable job. With news outlets looking to turn around the economic crisis, who are making efforts to fight disinformation. I don't want to sound pessimistic, despite this situation, I feel there is cause for optimism.

LJR: I was just going to finish with that positive aspect of taking on this role with the IAPA, what else can be highlighted about the region and its journalism?

CL: The increasingly frequent collaborative spaces to address complex investigative stories. The digital era, while it has brought problems in terms of the disruption of the advertising-based business model, it has also expanded access to information, allowed real-time coverage and accelerated global reach. Digital platforms have also empowered citizen journalism by allowing individuals to contribute to news coverage and share their perspectives. Fact-checking initiatives try to fight and combat disinformation with news accuracy. Data analysis techniques — with vast amounts of data available, journalists are using data analysis techniques to uncover trends, to disseminate relevant information.

And the reality is that data-driven journalism enhances investigation, supports evidence-based storytelling and allows journalists to present complex information in a more accessible way. And, finally, I'll end with this, journalists are increasingly encouraged to engage their audience and encourage interactive experiences. I think this trend promotes a more inclusive and participatory approach to journalism, encouraging dialogue, feedback and also a more engaged community.