Mexico, Honduras downgraded to "not free" in new global report on press freedom

Mexico and Honduras have joined the rank of countries where the press is not considered free or independent, according to a Freedom House study released Monday, May 2, reported the Christian Science Monitor. In fact, the report, Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence, found that global press freedom has declined to its lowest levels in more than a decade, with Latin America experiencing the most severe setbacks. The report was released as part of World Press Freedom Day.

A second study, the International Press Institute's World Press Freedom Review 2010 – Focus on the Americas, also was released Monday, and noted that Mexico and Honduras accounted for nearly a quarter of all journalists killed in 2010. Of the 102 journalists who died in 2010, 32 were in Latin America.

“A country where journalists cannot report freely without fear of interference, by the government or other actors, has little hope of achieving or maintaining true democracy,” David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House, said in a statement. “While we have unfortunately come to expect restrictive and dangerous environments for journalists in nondemocratic regimes like those in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, we are particularly troubled this year by declines in young or faltering democracies like Mexico, Hungary, and Thailand.”

Similarly, World Press Freedom Review Managing Editor Anthony Mills in a statement pointed out that while "popular consciousness is attuned to war correspondents dying in conflict zones that are in the international eye such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, more recently, Libya, in Mexico there’s another no-less-deadly front line. It’s a front line littered with the bodies of journalists whose by-line may not appear on the pages of the world’s most prominent newspapers, and who may not file reports for the world’s most prominent broadcasters, but who are no less heroic, no less committed to the cause of gathering and transmitting news to serve the public interest in a country facing a very real, extremely violent, and often deadly conflict.”

While Colombia was the Freedom House report's lone bright spot in the region, experiencing slight improvement in its press freedom score, overall the area suffered, with ArgentinaBolivia, and Ecuador’s scores declining. In total, four countries (MexicoHondurasCuba, and Venezuela), representing 17 percent of the region’s population, were labeled as “not free;” 14 countries (42 percent of the population) were rated “partly free;” and 17 countries (41 percent of the region’s population) were ranked as “free.” The “open media environments” of many Caribbean nations tend to “offset the less rosy picture in Central and South America,” the report said.

The report blamed Mexico’s “escalating drug wars” on the country’s downgraded rating to “not free.” As the report said, “Violence and intimidation by criminal groups have steadily increased in a climate of impunity, leading to heightened self-censorship by the profession as a whole as well as the murders of more than 60 journalists over the past 10 years. During 2010, the nature of drug gangs’ control over the news agenda expanded from prohibitory censorship to concerted attempts to place propaganda or press releases in selected media outlets. This was typically achieved through a combination of threats and bribery.”

This report from Freedom House mirrors previous studies, such as from Reporters Without Borders or the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics, that found that violence against the Mexican media, at the hands of both drug dealers and government forces, grew in 2010, which resulted in increased levels of self-censorship. Similarly, a recent mid-year report from the Inter American Press Association found that the state of freedom of expression, especially in Mexico, has deteriorated throughout the Americas.

As far as Honduras' “not free” rating, the Freedom House report concluded that while the political environment has somewhat stabilized since the 2009 coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya as president, “journalists’ ability to work safely was severely compromised by a sharp rise in harassment and attacks in early 2010, including the killing of six journalists in March alone. The aggression and intimidation came from both sides of the political divide,” and the increase in violence has been “coupled with a climate of impunity in which journalists’ deaths were not investigated thoroughly or in a timely manner.”

Ecuador’s score dropped significantly (it is ranked as “partly free”), according to the report, because of President Rafael Correa’s administration’s “negative rhetoric and actions against news outlets,” combined with government advertising boycotts, an increase in criminal defamation suits against journalists, and broadcasters being shut down and raided.

Likewise, Bolivia, also considered “partly free,” saw its score decrease because of new laws that allow the government to issue fines and imprison journalists, which has led to an increase in self censorship, the report said.

Attacks, harassment, and increased tensions between the government and opposition media, such as the newspaper Clarín, led to a decreased score in Argentina, as well, the report said.

Colombia was the only country in the region to experience a slight increase in its score, due mostly to charges being filed in a number of old cases of attacks against journalists, demonstrating progress in the fight against impunity, according to the report.

The United States has one of the best scores (ranked as no. 17 worldwide), in part because of a 2010 law meant to shield journalists from “libel tourism” lawsuits in foreign countries. The report also noted that “several major releases of classified documents by the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks led to heated debates over the ability of democracies to take legal action against those responsible for publicizing leaked information.”

Worldwide, of the 196 countries and territories assessed, 68 (35 percent) were rated "free," 65 (33 percent) were rated "partly free," and 63 (32 percent) were rated "not free." The Associated Press reported that the 10 worst-rated countries in the world are: Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

This blog is produced at The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Other Related Headlines:
» Knight Center (Internet freedom at risk around world, says Freedom House report)
» IFEX (IFEX unveils special website for World Press Freedom Day)

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.