Amid the global decline in freedom of expression, Nicaragua is one of the countries that has sustained the greatest damage to freedom of expression, while Cuba “leads in regional race to the bottom” in the Americas.
These are some of the findings from organization Article 19 in its Global Expression Report 2018/19.
The report released on Dec. 2 looks at the state of freedom of expression in 161 countries in 2018 and 2019 and compares with the indicators measured by the study every year since 2008. Globally, freedom of expression is at its lowest point in the last decade, according to the report.
Four of the five countries with the greatest decline in freedom of expression between 2017 and 2018 are in Latin America and the Caribbean: Nicaragua (1st), Colombia (2nd), Haiti (3rd) and El Salvador (5th) – Indonesia is in 4th place.
Between 2015 and 2018, Latin American countries which lost the most in terms of freedom of expression were Nicaragua (2nd) and Brazil (3rd). Nicaragua appears again in 1st place among the countries with the largest decline in the comparison between 2013 and 2018 and 5th between 2008 and 2018.
The report assesses that Nicaragua “saw a devastating crisis in 2018, when the environment for dissent of any kind collapsed” with the repression of Daniel Ortega's government security forces, as well as paramilitaries and pro-government groups, of the opposing protests that began in April of that year.
The report mentions a radio fire in the city of León and the murder of Angel Gahona, a journalist shot dead while broadcasting a protest live in the town of Bluefields. It also says that arbitrary arrests were “a key strategy for crushing protests” – two people arrested in this context were journalists Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda, who spent nearly six months in detention before being released in June this year.
According to Article 19, in addition to the government using violence against the population so that it “went well beyond maintaining public order,” the regulatory body TELCOR “particularly targeted and pressured independent media.”
“There were also digital attacks on outlets; weekly Confidencial suffered periods of blockage and denial of service during distinct periods of the protest, such as when they published a list of the dead, and La Prensa website also experienced cyberattacks,” the report said.
There is no more street violence right now, the report says, but “journalists and outlets who were critical of the government during the violence now live and work under constant stigma, threats, harassment, and obstruction.” Many left the country, and by June 2019 at least 50 Nicaraguan journalists were living in exile, Article 19 noted.
In the overall global ranking presented by the report, Cuba is only 10 positions away from last place, North Korea. Just in the ranking that considers only the indicators about the media, that is, “the environment for outlets and publications,” Cuba is closer to the end of the ranking, in 158th place, surpassed only by Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.
According to the report, in Cuba “the repressive atmosphere worsened during 2018, prompted by the general election. Security forces continued to harass civil society organizations, journalists, and human rights defenders.”
The report said that “a huge range of repressive measures – from home raids and intimidation of family members to arbitrary and preventative detentions” were used to suffocate freedom of expression on the island. It also evaluates that “digital censorship in Cuba continued unabated,” through limiting internet connection and blocking sites considered “unsuitable” by the authorities.
In addition to Cuba and Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia also received special attention in the report on Latin America.
Regarding Mexico, Article 19 notes that journalism in Mexico is "trapped between the violence of organized crime and the violence of government."
“There were 544 aggressions against journalists linked to their work during 2018, including nine murders,” the report said, adding that government officials committed 230 of these aggressions, or 42 percent of the total.
Although shocking, the statistics “cannot begin to convey the terror confronting the press in Mexico,” Article 19 wrote. To these must be added “the total impunity with which these crimes are committed – more than 99% of cases never see justice – and the fact that agents of the state are statistically the greatest threat to the press; the authorities both participate and are complicit in the crimes committed.”
The organization assesses that the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), which took office on December 1, 2018, “has already shown itself to be full of contradictions regarding the importance of journalistic work and violence against the press.” Shortly after being sworn in, the president “had begun to stigmatise the press as dissenters” and also attacked several government agencies that guarantee the right to information, the report said.
In addition, the change of government did not mean a change from the murders of journalists, as in the first nine months of the AMLO presidency, 11 journalists were murdered in Mexico, Article 19 said.
Colombia, for its part, had a decline in freedom of expression following the signing of the peace agreement that ended the armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), according to the report.
This is due to “the ecosystem of armed groups in Colombia and the failure of President Iván Duque Márquez’s government to implement the peace agreement” combined with “the near-absence of the state in certain rural areas and ongoing lack of political will to support a diverse and critical environment for communicators and human rights defenders,” the organization said.
Violence against communicators in Colombia increased 53 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the report. Violations range from stigmatizing journalists through official platforms to physical attacks, and state officials were the perpetrators in 105 out of 477 cases recorded in 2018.
The report cites various authorities who allegedly harassed journalists, including former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe, leader of the ruling party, and the recurring episodes in which he stigmatized and threatened to retaliate against journalists for their work.
Another serious event negatively impacting freedom of expression in Colombia was the assassination in March 2018 of a news team from the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, Article 19 recalled. They were murdered by FARC dissidents at the border between the two countries, and the report notes that local groups have criticized the way the two governments have handled the situation. But the report classifies as "historic" the decision of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to determine an alliance between the agency and the states of Colombia and Ecuador to investigate the case.