Latin America sees decline in respect for press freedom; coronavirus pandemic exacerbates existing crises for media: RSF

Latin America has seen an overall decline in respect for press freedom, according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its acronym in French).

“Harassment and stigmatization of the media, fed by online disinformation and attacks, have increased in scope, especially in countries with major social conflicts,” the organization wrote.

RSF World Pres

RSF World Press Freedom Index 2020: Good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black) [Graphic from Reporters Without Borders)

The index and accompanying report, released April 21, point to various crises that pose threats to the press in Latin America and Caribbean with regard to the state of democracy, the targeting of journalists both online and offline and media concentration.

Globally, the next decade will be “decisive for the future of journalism,” according to RSF, which holds that the current coronavirus pandemic has highlighted threats to independent information around the world.

This year’s edition “suggests that the next ten years will be pivotal for press freedom because of converging crises affecting the future of journalism: a geopolitical crisis (due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes); a technological crisis (due to a lack of democratic guarantees); a democratic crisis (due to polarization and repressive policies); a crisis of trust (due to suspicion and even hatred of the media); and an economic crisis (impoverishing quality journalism),” the press release from RSF reads. “These five areas of crisis...are now compounded by a global public health crisis.”

Regarding the public health crisis, RSF notes a “clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the Index.”

Cause for concern in the Americas and Caribbean

Though Latin America saw an overall decline regarding respect for press freedom, regionally, the Americas are second only to Europe in terms of media freedom.

“Even if the regional heavyweights, the United States and Brazil, are becoming models of hostility towards the media,” RSF continued, saying that the leaders of both countries promote hatred toward journalists.

“The ‘hate cabinet’ surrounding the Brazilian leader [Jair Bolsonaro] orchestrates large-scale online attacks on journalists who expose government secrets,” the release reads. “President Bolsonaro has stepped up his attacks on the media since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, blaming them for ‘hysteria’ and panic.”

RSF pointed to women journalists being especially vulnerable to attacks.

Although Venezuela rose in the ranking, simply because other countries fell, journalists in the country are arrested arbitrarily, face violence from police and intelligence officers, are deprived of broadcasting frequencies, suffer internet blockages and more.

“President Maduro’s authoritarianism continues to grow and his government’s constant persecution of the independent press takes many forms,” the report said.

Arbitrary detention and the flight of journalists from the country are also phenomenons in Nicaragua under the regime of President Daniel Ortega.

Additionally, “because of a government-orchestrated shortage of the necessary inputs (including newsprint and rubber), printed newspapers have virtually disappeared,” RSF noted.

The country in the region that ranks lowest on the Index is Cuba.

“The Cuban regime maintains its near-total monopoly of news and information, and the constitution continues to ban privately-owned media,” the report said. “Arrests and imprisonment of troublesome journalists increased in 2019.”

Mexico is still the most dangerous country for journalists in Latin America, as RSF noted links between organized crime and corrupt politicians and officials put media professionals in this precarious position.

The same links can be seen in Central America, it added.

“In Guatemala and Honduras, in particular, journalists with the opposition and community media outlets who dare to denounce political corruption are often attacked, threatened, forced to flee the country, or murdered,” the organization wrote.

There have been declines in press freedom in Colombia with increases in attacks, death threats and abductions of journalists since President Iván Duque took power, the report states.

Haiti takes first in regards to the biggest declines for this year’s index as RSF points out that journalists have been targets during violent protests. Most notably, radio journalist Néhémie Joseph was found deceased in his car in Mirebalais, Haiti on Oct. 10, 2019. The country fell 21 places in the 2020 Index.

RSF also highlighted that journalists have been targets of public anger during street protests in Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Despite ranking high in the region in terms of the index, Argentina did fall seven places due to police violence and attacks on journalists during protests, partly during presidential elections, as RSF highlighted.

Regarding the threat of ownership concentration, RSF pointed to Argentina, which fell seven places to 64th globally.

The organization said the "panorama [in Latin America] is far from promising."

"In fact, lasting and significant progress for press freedom faces countless challenges in Latin America," the report reads. "If journalists and media outlets cannot count on strong and democratic institutions to guarantee their safety and survival, they will have to reinvent themselves and find alternative and innovative solutions."