By Lorenzo Holt
Unsolved murders, violent government repression, oppressive anti-media laws and the ever-increasing ties between big money and big government were among the issues of debate at the 71st General Assembly of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA).
In the conclusions from their assembly, the IAPA listed attacks against journalists, government pressure, legal obstacles and an increase in state media ownership as causes for the deterioration of press freedoms in Latin America.
The report stated that since March, 11 journalists have been killed in Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Perpetrators were caught in only three of these cases; impunity for those who attack journalists is commonplace in the region.
Physical attacks and threats of violence from criminal groups and government agents also were frequent, according to the organization. Three journalists were briefly jailed in Bolivia while others in Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil were subject to acts of oppression for reporting on government activities.
In addition to physical violence and intimidation, a widespread phenomenon was the restricting of press freedoms through the proposal of new laws or the expansion of informal government pressure.
The direct curtailment of media rights was exemplified by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s attempt to pass a bill on the "Promotion and Development of the National Wideband Telecommunications Network," which, according to the IAPA, would give the government “complete control over the flow of information on the Internet.” The bill was not passed thanks to unanimous opposition by political parties, civil society, and COSEP, a private-enterprise group, according to the IAPA report.
Another example is Paraguay, where the IAPA said the state of free media may be at risk with the purchase and consequent consolidation of major media outlets by a company owned by Sarah Cartes, sister of Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes. Sarah Cartes became the owner of the media conglomerate Grupo La Nación in April. The company then purchased three of six media outlets of Grupo Multimedia and a majority of shares in another media group called Holding Hei Network.
Other attempts at censorship in the region were less obvious, such as in Chile, where a new bill on waste management would hinder news organizations’ abilities to legally operate through onerous financial obligations regarding the disposal of their products, said the IAPA.
According to the IAPA report, the bill states that “the manufacturer or importer of certain products shall have to take charge of the product once its useful life is ended.” Under the proposed bill, newspapers would have to be authorized for sale by the Environment Ministry, and also be shut down by the same ministry for not complying with waste management regulations.
“The main problem of the bill under study is that it does not recognize the reality of various industries. On the one hand there is a developed paper recycling industry, with which the press works daily, and on the other there are multiple small size news companies for whom a duty such as that established in the bill is disproportionate,” the IAPA report stated.
In Costa Rica, the controversial Law on Radio and Television was proposed and then called off in early 2015 but has seen many of its components return under different initiatives. The IAPA stated that these would open journalists to expensive lawsuits, establish pro-government community radio stations, and regulate state advertising in such a way as to favor politically ‘correct’ media outlets.
In Cuba, despite systematic government repression of all dissident voices, Internet hotspots have appeared on the island and have been visited daily by tens of thousands of Cubans.
The report ends on a high note, recognizing the efforts of press freedom organizations that put pressure on their governments to uphold the rights of journalists and the media. In particular they mentioned the newly formed Quito Forum on Freedom of Expression which was convened to defend freedom of expression in Ecuador. In particular, they are fighting to defend the continued operation of Fundamedios, a press freedom advocacy group in Ecuador.
“Just a few days after the Quito Forum, and following the pronouncement by five OAS and UN rapporteurs for human rights, the Ecuadorean government left without effect, for the time being, its decision to permanently shut down Fundamedios,” said IAPA director Claudio Paolillo during a speech. “We are not winning the war but we are winning an important battle.”
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.