‘We, of course, are going to defend the principles of journalism,’ journalists talk about press freedom during Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism

Talking about the current state of digital journalism is not possible without touching on one of the most serious problems facing media: violations of press freedom. This is particularly true in Latin America.

For this reason, the 17th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism featured the topic in one of its main panels called “Attacks against the press in Latin America,” which was moderated by the director of the Knight Center and founder of ISOJ and the Colloquium, Rosental Alves.

Alves began by pointing out how attacks against the press have been “evolving” compared to his time as a correspondent during which he saw most of the dictatorships in the region.

“The attacks seemed a little different. They [dictators] ended democracy with the excuse that they were trying to save democracy,” recalled Alves, who compared how now the attacks on democracy are more cynical, the destruction of democracy because it is not convenient for them. “[They seek] to destroy democracy and in some cases build a kleptocracy. The dictatorship evolves into kleptocracy, the regime of thieves.”

During the panel, journalists from Guatemala, Peru and Venezuela discussed government strategies to persecute the press and the patterns they share.

José Carlos Zamora, director of communications and impact at Exile and son of Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, began his presentation by expressing gratitude for the support that he and the entire Zamora family have felt during the case against his father.  At the time of the panel, the father had spent 625 days in prison, despite not being convicted of anything.

Cuatro personas sentadas frente a un escenario

Romina Mella, Luz Mely Reyes, José Carlos y Rosental Alves en el panel “Ataques contra la prensa en América Latina” durante el 17º Coloquio Iberoamericano de Periodismo Digital. (Foto: Patricia Lim/Centro Knight)

The case of José Rubén Zamora has become emblematic not only of demonstrating the harassment against journalism in Guatemala, but also how “sophisticated” the attacks against journalists now are. According to José Zamora, the murders of journalists – which continue to be high in number in the region – “have a very high cost for governments.”

“They were evolving: using tax terrorism, defamation campaigns, they began to use civil law to keep you in hearings,” said José Zamora. “But the most effective and efficient tool, and we see it in the world, is criminalization and the use of criminal law to persecute journalists. It is a tool that has been very useful for all authoritarian and repressive regimes.”

José Zamora also explained how the government of former President Alejandro Giammattei was “absolutely” corrupt and repressive. After Guatemala's anti-corruption movement experienced several victories, governments like Giammattei's arrived “seeking revenge,” and they did so against prosecutors, judges and journalists, he said.

One of those targets was José Rubén Zamora who was arrested on July 29, 2022 and accused of money laundering. Although his conviction was overturned and international organizations have pointed out irregularities and violations in his judicial case, he has been in prison for almost two years, in “conditions that have been documented to be torture,” his son said. He’s also being held in violation of Guatemala's own regulations that state no person can be in preventive detention for more than 90 days, José Zamora said.

Currently, the government's new strategy seems to be to delay the hearings. Likewise, an organization challenged the judge and the court in the Zamora case and now it must be decided by the Supreme Court of Justice, which was chosen by Giammattei.

“But we continue fighting and we continue denouncing. The most important thing is to continue denouncing these abuses of power,” José Zamora said. “Corruption remains entrenched in the judicial system and we demand that the judicial system be renewed.”

In turn, the Venezuelan journalist, co-founder and executive director of Effect Cocuyo, Luz Mely Reyes, explained what she experienced in her country in the 25 years of 'Chavismo', and what has led to the wave of journalists being expelled. Reyes pointed out how there is a pattern in the region and called for recognizing those patterns because, as she said, “it is difficult for us to see it when we are living it.”

Reyes' analysis begins with the arrival of former President Hugo Chávez to power, which was experienced as “a honeymoon.” She warned about these charms.

“Every time people think they can reconcile with [the authoritarians], we remind them 'that happened in Venezuela. It did not work out.'"

With the coup d'état of 2002, the honeymoon came to an end, and was followed by an “important milestone” in attacks on the media, such as the closure of RCTV. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Venezuela in this case.

Chávez's reelection in 2012 when he had already been diagnosed with cancer and the increase in attacks on the media in 2013 are important dates in this journey of Chavismo. That year saw the annihilation of print media, as well as the blockade of international media – which still cannot be seen in Venezuela today. A “respite” was seen in 2016 when there was a spring of digital native media – a “product of censorship.”

The administration of Nicolás Maduro, who followed Chávez, “crossed another line” in 2019 with the detention of journalists. One of the most shocking cases was that of Luis Carlos Díaz, a victim of forced disappearance for more than eight hours. Since then, people begin to talk much more strongly about “news deserts,” censorship, self-censorship and smear campaigns, Reyes added.

Added to this scenario are laws that have been used against journalism, such as the hate law and a broadcasting responsibility law, which have been instrumentalized in several countries. “Because authoritarianism is resilient and has the capacity for learning and the ability to connect,” Reyes said.

According to Reyes, the same thing that happened in Venezuela in these 25 years is being repeated in other countries. “The toolbox against journalism,” according to Reyes, includes criminalization, judicialization, stigmatization, defamation, among others. “The range is very wide,” she said.

“We see how it is being repeated in different Latin American countries and how this is leading to the expulsion of journalists and the dismantling – not only by the State against the media industry –, but of the practice of journalism,” said Reyes, who is also an ICFJ fellow working on connecting journalists in exile.

Her work as a fellow has been to look for initiatives that allow “doing journalism wherever we are.”

The situation in Peru, although it is not like that of Venezuela, is raising concern in the region, particularly about what could happen to the renowned investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti, whom the Peruvian prosecutor's office has recently opened a case against for alleged intervention in judicial investigations.

Romina Mella, editor in chief of investigative site IDL-Reporteros, explained to the Colloquium audience how this persecution against Gorriti began and who is allegedly behind it. IDL-Reporteros, created 14 years ago, was founded by Gorriti and has stood out for its journalistic investigations, especially those focused on corruption cases.

According to Mella, the media outlet's investigations always generated disinformation campaigns against the team and Gorriti. However, in the last year, they have seen an increase in these campaigns which are followed by waves of violence against the media outlet's headquarters, and even Gorriti's house. Investigations into the case known as Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, which has had a particular impact in Peru, have led to these responses.

Behind these disinformation campaigns, Mella explained, there are allegedly people linked to these investigations that “have involved all the former presidents since the return of democracy to Peru.” “It is the great case of corruption in our country and in Latin America,” Mella said.

In the disinformation campaigns, Gorriti has been accused of being a kind of “puppeteer” within the Peruvian Prosecutor's Office with the power to decide investigations, and even, in one of the most “delirious” accusations, as Mella said, they allege he instigated the suicide of former President Alan García. García committed suicide in his home when authorities arrived to arrest him for the Lava Jato case.

Mella highlighted how the charges for which the Gorriti investigation was opened are the same as those exposed in the smear campaigns.

“The prosecutor, violating all the principles of freedom of expression and journalism that exist in Peru and in international treaties, initiates a case, and has requested the telephone number that Gustavo used between 2016 and 2021, and has also announced that he is going to request the lifting of the secrecy of his communications because what is behind this investigation is the interest of a prosecutor in knowing the journalistic sources," Mella said.

Mella highlighted the support they have received both nationally and internationally, such as the statement issued by several international organizations supporting Gorriti or the letter of support for the journalist, pointing out that it is important to continue sounding the alarm on the case.

“We, of course, are going to defend the principles of journalism, we are not going to reveal or hand over any information, but investigative journalism is threatened. It is a serious threat and, as Luz Mely [Reyes] said, it is a script that is generally repeated throughout the region. And given the seriousness of the matter, because of what can happen in our country, for us it is important that other journalists raise their voices about what is happening because they are attacking us all,” Mella said.

For almost 50 minutes, the panelists and participants of the Colloquium discussed the different attacks on the press that are seen in the region, what could be ways to confront them and even ways to identify them.

For José Zamora, something that journalists must take into account with these new attacks is a way to confront them, but above all understand that it is not going to be a fair defense. According to him, in the face of physical threats or violent events there are usually protocols to react or prevent them, but the same does not happen with judicial attacks.

“We believe we can respond in law, but no,” he said. “You don't have to let yourself be captured. When you know you are innocent and as a journalist you believe 'I have a way to prove the truth, I am going to defend myself.’ The problem is that they are not courts, it is not justice. One cannot surrender to the system.”

The Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism is an annual meeting of journalists from the region organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Traditionally it is celebrated on the Sunday following the closing of the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) and this year it took place on April 14. A recording of the Colloquium can be found here.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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