On the 3rd of May, as the world celebrated Freedom of the Press Day, three journalists were found dead in Mexico. The mutilated bodies of photographers Gabriel Huge, Esteban Rodríguez, and Guillermo Luna were found in Veracruz state chopped up and discarded in a canal, the complete disregard for human life on full display for the world to see.
Just five days ago the body of Marco Antonio Ávila García was discovered in Ciudad Obregón, north-western Mexico. Strangled and wrapped in a plastic bag, the crime reporter was victim to an increasing trend that has been sweeping the Latin American country. His fault? Telling the truth.
García was the fourth journalist this month to be found murdered in Mexico, a tactic being used by organised crime gangs to install fear in press who are speaking out and reporting on crime. As the intensity of the fighting between organised crime groups and government forces has increased, the tolerance of journalist’s reporting has waned. These journalists have been killed with the same brutality as the crime cartels are treating each other, showing the level of threat the gangs consider freedom of press to be.
Speaking to Carlos Martín Lauría, Senior Coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), he considers this violence to be one of two major issues with the freedom of press in Latin America. CPJ is a non-profit organisation that was set up in 1981, while many Latin American countries were still ruled by dictatorships, and which has ardently covered threats to, and fought for, freedom of press in the world.
“One problem [with media freedom in Latin America] is the violence against press where organised groups have increased their pressure on journalists reporting on trafficking, corruption and crime.” Lauría states. “They are being specifically targeted.”
“Mexico right now is probably the worse case scenario,” He continues. “The country has become one of the worst places for journalists to work, not only in the hemisphere, but also around the world.” Since the Felipe Calderón government took office in 2006, and started an offensive against organised crime, levels of violence have increased at a rapid pace. This violence has also been directed at members of the press, who tirelessly work to expose gang exploits, while also acting as a watchdog for army forces – since then, 45 journalists have been murdered.
Similar attacks have occurred in Honduras and Northern Guatemala, areas that have been increasingly deteriorating due to the heightened presence of the drug trafficking gangs. In Honduras, journalists Alfredo Villatoro and Erick Martínez Avíla were both found dead in the last few weeks. Villatoro, who worked for the news station HRN, was kidnapped on the 9th May. His body was found, with shots to the head on the 15th. According to the International Press Institute, Villatoro was the 23rd journalist to be killed in the Central American country since the coup d’état that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. This year, despite the fact Honduras has 7% of Mexico’s population, the same number of journalists have been killed in both countries.
Lauría hints that part of the violence in Central America is intrinsically linked to their northern neighbour. ”The presence of Mexican cartels can be felt now in Central America, especially in northern Guatemala, where the criminal cartel organisation known as the Zetas is having a big presence. Also in Honduras, the presence of the cartels is creating a lot of problems as that is the place where there has been the most murders, per ratio, according to UN reports.”
Honduras has the additional problem of a government that is not entirely committed to bringing justice to these killings. Lauría describes a CJP report in which the NGO “are calling on the government to break the acts of impunity that surround all these investigations.”
So does this mean there is no hope for journalists while organised crime is widespread in the area? “We know there is no magic solution, but we still need to ensure freedom of expression,” says Lauría.
The Pen is Sharper than the Sword
Despite the continuing violence, journalists and support networks are making a stand for themselves, and for their work. CPJ and other press support organisations continually lobby for international organisations to pressure governments for change. CPJ has travelled to Honduras and Mexico in recent years to compile reports on stifling of press and present them to the UN Council on Human Rights to demand for change. On Friday in Honduras, a march organised by the Colegio de Periodistas de Honduras will take place across the country, in a stand against the killings, and general intimidation of press.
A recent study by Reporters Without Borders asked if journalists are best prepared against organised crime, with an answer a resounding ‘no’.
“It is clear from this report that the media are not united against organised crime, their correspondents are isolated and lack resources, and their capacity for investigative reporting is eclipsed by the race for breaking news,” the report claims.
Reporters Without Borders, another NGO which monitors and advocates for global press freedom, released the report claiming that they believe the way for journalists to combat this violence is for them to strategically work together, especially in countries where the governments might not be reliable enough.
Journalists should be “pooling information and sources,” while calling “for the creation of journalists’ associations that can help to guarantee the independence of their media and prevent murky financial interests from influencing editorial choices.”
Both Sides of the Law
But it is not just the extremity of the violence that is stifling freedom of press in Latin America. Below the headline grabbing aggressive tactics of the cartels, there is a culture of soft censorship that is threatening the freedom of press in a less explicit way.
“The second problem [with freedom of press] is the fact that some democratically elected leaders in Latin America are practising unconstitutional methods in an attempt to stifle press,” Lauría warns. “Venezuela is perhaps the most stark example of this, followed by Ecuador and Nicaragua.”
In the case of Ecuador, back in February, the high court decided to uphold a criminal libel conviction brought against newspaper El Universo by President Rafael Correa. The leader of the South American country filed a lawsuit against the paper after they published a column by journalist Emilio Palacio, criticising Correa and his treatment of the police uprising in March 2011. In a column titled ‘No to Lies’, Palacio referred to the president as a ‘dictator’ and blamed the action of the army troops, who killed three police officers during protests, on Correa. The court decided the paper had to pay US$40 million in damages and sentenced Palacio and the three owners of the paper to prison for three years. Palacio has since filed for political asylum in the United States.
“This demonstrates that you can prosecute not only the clowns, but also the owner of the circus,” said Correa in response to the decision. He argues that the press organisations in Ecuador are corrupt and run by biased opposition parties, who funded El Universo, and who should not be allowed to “buy a printing press.”
After the case Lauría released a statement saying that “this short-sighted ruling will only keep Ecuadoran journalists from investigating powerful politicians; it represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador.” In reference to this case, he says that although Correa has since pardoned Palacio and El Universo, it was only due to international pressure. “It’s for the international community to be aware that this censorship has been going on.”
In Ecuador, the conflict between the press and the government has been intensifying in the lead up to the 2013 presidential election. Standing by his previous assertion that the press are too powerful and corrupt, the president has stood by his decision to change an electoral law, which will limit press coverage of the event. Critics of the press in Ecuador argue that their influence is too politically motivated and that they have unleashed a self-serving campaign against the government in order to suit their own economic interests.
In the case of violent attacks on journalists, the government has a role, however effective it may be, which is to stand up for the press. When it is the government itself threatening the freedom, NGOs such as CPJ, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and many others make it their job to bring these cases to media attention.
Lauría argues that a constant spotlight on exploitation of the outlets of speech is the key to ensuring a more open flow of information. “It is up to inter-governmental institutions like to Organisation of American States (OAS) to protect freedom of expression.”
The UN declaration for Freedom of Press Day clearly states, that “freedom of information is a fundamental human right.”
Across Latin America the free state of the press has improved significantly within the last decades. But while acts of aggression, be they legal or physical, are exercised on journalists, the level of threat remains unacceptable.
As Carlos Lauría so conclusively puts it, “what is being affected is more than the right for journalists to report the news, but also the rights of freedom of expression and access to information.”
To find out what Argentines think about the state of freedom of the press in Latin America, click here.