Stigmatizing discourse, murder, abduction: Latin American press faced average of 10 violations each day in 2023

In 2023, the press in Latin America was attacked about once every two hours.

Map of Latin America but it's all redIn that time frame, 17 journalists were also murdered; dozens of communicators and media workers were sent to prison; and hundreds of journalists were forced into exile, displacement and self-censorship.

This data from the 2023 Informe Sombra (Shadow Report), recently published by the Voces del Sur network, reveals the vulnerability in which members of the press work in Latin America. It also found that the main aggressors are agents of the State (53%) and, secondly, organized crime.

The Voces del Sur network is an initiative promoted by 17 civil society organizations in the region that work to promote and defend freedom of expression in each of their countries. The 2023 report is the sixth edition of their annual investigation that is published each year.

For it, they designed and executed a shared methodology based on the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.10.1 with which they continuously monitor and report violations of freedoms of expression and of the press by publishing alerts.

According to the report, in 2023 there were 3,827 alerts against press freedom and 128 gender alerts. These alerts are measured through 13 indicators that each of the organizations detects in their countries: murder, abduction, forced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture, assaults and attacks, stigmatizing discourse, sexual violence, civil and criminal proceedings, restrictions on access to information, abusive use of state power, legal framework contrary to international standards, and restrictions on the internet.

The alert for gender, as explained in the report, is transversal to the rest of the indicators and evaluates whether the motive behind an attack is related to the sex, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation of the victim.

The report aims to enrich and serve as a comparison for the information that the different national governments in Latin America usually publish, or omit, in their own official reports.

“This information, which is hard data, neither analysis nor perception, serves to know if we will reach 2030 with the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations met, which I think will not happen,” Adriana León, member of the Press and Society Institute of Peru, one of the founding organizations of Voces del Sur, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

On alert

The first thing that León highlighted from the 2023 report is that, compared to the previous year, in general terms there was a decrease in alerts regarding press freedom. However, she said that this decline hides a worrying fact: "In countries like Nicaragua there are almost no media outlets or journalists because they are all in exile, this shows that censorship is absolute."

She acknowledged that in some countries alerts increased considerably compared to 2022: El Salvador increased by 400%, Costa Rica and Argentina by 150%, and Paraguay by almost 100%.

“That alerts have increased in Uruguay (11%) and Costa Rica (150%), which have always been countries with political stability, is an alarm and worries us because the rest of the countries had to aim to be like them and not the other way around,” she added.

The most recurrent form of attack on the press in Latin America was aggression and physical attacks with 1,680 alerts, then stigmatizing discourse with 684 alerts, followed by restrictions on the internet (471) and access to information (384).

The State continues to be the main aggressor against the press and was responsible for 52% of the attacks in 2023 throughout the region. The report highlights that the consolidation of undemocratic regimes and the proliferation of organized crime have created an extremely dangerous combination for press freedom and the practice of journalism.

Regarding the most lethal countries to practice journalism, León said that Mexico, Honduras and Ecuador continue to be in the top positions, as in 2022. In the case of Ecuador, in 2023 it recorded a dramatic increase in alerts related to organized crime, such as the murder of presidential candidate and journalist Fernando Villavicencio.

In Latin America, a journalist was murdered every 21 days during 2023.

Stigmatizing discourse was the second most common form of attack on the press, which involved 17% of the alerts and was present in 15 of the 17 countries monitored, according to León. She added that the most dramatic case is that of El Salvador, where stigmatizing discourse against the press increased by 700% compared to 2022 and was mainly promoted by President Nayib Bukele.

León warned that this form of attack “really works and is effective in discrediting the press and generating violence.”

The press in the region is also exposed to insecurity, which means that "journalists do not have any support for anything, they work in more than one job at a time and do not have effective protection," Leon said.

For these reasons, hundreds of journalists have been forced into exile and in many cases continue doing journalism and reporting what is happening in their countries from abroad.

León said that journalists from one media outlet in El Salvador have to leave the country every time a report is published. She also spoke about the Nicaraguan journalists who went into exile in Costa Rica and continue to do journalism there “despite the fact that it is a very expensive country and they have few resources to address an issue as serious as exile.”

Recommendations for a safer press

The Voces del Sur report proposes six strategic approaches to improve the situation of press freedom in the region in the coming years, such as implementing effective mechanisms and public policies to protect and promote journalistic work.

Coordinator of the Voces del Sur network, Chloe Zoeller, told LJR that it is necessary to carry out independent, effective and transparent investigations into violent crimes against journalists to reduce impunity rates. In the event that the victims of lethal violence are women journalists, she added that a gender perspective must be included.

For public policies that already exist, such as the protection mechanisms for journalists that some countries implement, Zoeller warned that a larger budget must be allocated to them. But also, these mechanisms must be strengthened in collaboration with civil society and networks of journalists who understand their failures.

In the case of journalists who must travel due to threats and violence, the Zoeller said that these processes must be expedited, and journalists in exile must be supported so that it is possible for them to continue working as journalists.

In this sense, she said that it is important to collaborate with the relevant organizations to extend humanitarian and technical assistance to journalists who remain in countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela or Cuba.

Another of Zoeller's recommendations is to “immediately end all illegal surveillance of journalists and human rights defenders.” Approve laws, executive orders or other mechanisms that establish protections for journalists in the digital sphere. Likewise, “allocate funds for investigations into online threats made against journalists, since they often turn into physical manifestations of violence.”

The coordinator of Voces del Sur emphasized the importance of the fight against disinformation not being used to restrict freedom of expression, because “laws against disinformation can be drafted and applied inappropriately to restrict the exercise of journalism.”

According to her, to improve the situation of press freedom in the region, monopolization of the media must also be prevented by financially supporting independent, local and non-traditional media.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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