PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – With violence against journalists at an all-time high and governments exerting undue control over information, press freedom in Latin America and throughout the world is under threat, the director of the world’s leading press freedom group said.
“This year is shaping up to be the worst on record for journalist killings since the International Press Institute (IPI) began keeping count 15 years ago,” said Alison Bethel McKenzie, executive director of the Vienna-based IPI.
McKenzie spoke at the IPI’s 61st World Congress on June 24, delivering a sobering address to editors, media executives and journalists who had gathered from around the world.
Through the first half of 2012, 72 journalists have been killed for their reporting, McKenzie said, setting a pace that would far surpass the death toll of previous years. Last year, 102 journalists were killed and in 2009, the deadliest on record, 110 were murdered.
“Journalists are dying on the job in record numbers,” McKenzie said.
While more than half of those deaths came in the Middle East/Northern Africa and Asia, McKenzie expressed concern over the climate in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 15 journalists have been killed so far this year.
Mexico, which led the world with 10 journalist killings last year, has already seen six murders, all of which occurred during a 50-day span this spring.
On April 29, a female journalist reporting on the nexus between drug cartels and local and state politicians was beaten and strangled to death in the state of Veracruz. Less than a week later, the dismembered bodies of three journalists were found in plastic bags after having been dumped in a wastewater canal.
The murders are having a direct impact on freedom of the press, which is playing a vital role amid an ongoing drug war that has killed tens of thousands.
“So chilling and persistently deadly is the climate for journalists in Mexico that many outlets have announced that they will stop covering crime altogether,” McKenzie said.
Reporters have also been killed in Brazil (three journalists murdered), Honduras (three), Colombia (two) and Haiti (one) this year.
Often, the crimes go unpunished, which serves to exacerbate a climate that limits reporting, said Frank La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
“Above all, there’s a struggle against impunity,” La Rue, a Guatemalan, said. “This is the biggest challenge we have: How do we break the impunity around the world in order to protect journalism?”
While violence is the most striking assault on press freedom, anachronistic defamation laws, consolidation of ownership and government interference are also damaging the press’s ability to operate in Latin America and the Caribbean, observers said.
“The situation in Latin America and the Caribbean is, without a doubt, very worrisome,” said Catalina Botero, special rapporteur on freedom of expression for the Organization of American States (OAS).
Botero said governments are too often limiting access to information and persecuting journalists who have been critical of the government with laws that make defamation a crime punishable by jail and excessive fines.
For example, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa brought a defamation case against three newspaper executives and a columnist from leading opposition newspaper El Universo, in February. Courts sentenced the defendants to three years in prison and ordered them to pay a total of US$42 million in damages.
Human rights and press freedom groups decried the ruling, which the Committee to Protect Journalists called “a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador.”
Correa later said he would pardon the defendants and waive the fines, but the episode serves as an example of how Ecuador, like several other governments in the region, is trying to control the media for political purposes, said Julio E. Muñoz, executive director of the Inter American Press Association, which deals with press issues throughout the Americas.
“Ask [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez how he controls the media in Venezuela – he just controls the [broadcasting] signals,” Muñoz said.
In Venezuela, Chávez has shut down dozens of radio stations for what critics have suggested was retribution for critical reporting.
The stations, in many cases, were unlicensed and Venezuelan broadcasters had complained the preponderance of unlicensed stations interfered with legal signals. Muñoz, however, said it was a government tactic widely used in the region.
“In many countries around the hemisphere, the government controls the media by controlling the licenses,” he said. “They give the licenses to the good friends and neglect the licenses for the others.”
Muñoz also questioned the use of government advertising as a method to influence the message.
“Public advertising is one of the main ways to control the media,” he said. “You give the advertising to the good guys, your friends, and you withhold it from those that are critical.”