reVista - Harvard Review of Latin America
Journalism in a Difficult Context By Ricardo Trotti
To talk about press freedom, it’s necessary to talk about democracy. Both are intimately related. The quality of the one affects the other. Latin America is not immune from this equation, since both press freedom and democracy exist in a context with persistent structural and historic problems.
In the last twenty years, the region has made great strides in achieving formal democracy, but its institutions are very weak. In many cases, states have not been able to take care of their citizens’ basic necessities. In many countries, all three branches of government have extremely low rates of credibility. Even more worrisome is that the vital signs of democracy are weakening in certain areas: for example, in the lack of independence among the three branches of government, transparency in elections and citizen participation, as well as of respect for institutions, including the press. Statistics published by Freedom House at the beginning of 2011 indicate that democracy has suffered setbacks in 25 countries throughout the world, including three in Latin America: Haiti, Mexico and Venezuela.
The lack of an independent judicial branch, which is used as a political instrument of power in countries like Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, is notable. In addition, in many governments in the region, power is concentrated in the executive branch and opposition political parties are very weak.
Eight out of every ten people in Latin America feel inadequatedly protected by their government. In many cities, they live in a permanent climate of insecurity. Increase in drug trafficking, organized crime, juvenile gangs, and in many cases, corruption within the government itself—especially within the police force, as in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico—are all part of the problem. A recent report by the Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro indicates that 27% of the murders in the world take place in Latin America, which has only 8% of the world’s population. One out of every three Latin Americans (200 million) has been the victims of some kind of crime.
With a few exceptions like Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay, Latin America leads the lists of governmental corruption in the world and corruption is tending to increase. Multinational companies— IBM in Argentina, Chevron in Ecuador and Chiquita in Central America—also contribute to this phenomenon.
Despite some advances in literacy in countries such as Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela, most education systems do not prepare the work force to compete in a globalized world, leading to high unemployment. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, there are 53 million undernourished people in Latin America. Latin Americans with university education tend to emigrate, causing a brain drain.
A Difficult Context
To practice journalism in this context is not easy. The press frequently suffers the consequences of its own lack of professionalism and independence and of the absence or weakness of other institutions such as political parties. Denunciations and investigations provoke retaliatory measures from governments, as well as from the power elite, organized crime and other extralegal groups.
Press laws frequently attempt to control journalistic content. Independent journalists have been arbitrarily jailed in Cuba. However, there are many other forms of control that affect the free practice of journalism. Indirect censorship— attacks on the media, including kidnappings, threats and murders—is now more prevalent than direct censorship against the press—23 journalists were murdered in the region in 2010. Both direct and indirect censorship are intended to provoke self-censorship in which the media and journalists silence themselves because of fear of the consequences.
Many governments claim the existence of complete freedom of the press in their countries. For example, Argentine president Cristina de Kirchner recently asserted in a political rally that everyone could say anything they wanted in that country.
But that is only a half-truth. Press freedom involves not only the right to express oneself, but also the right not to be harassed or persecuted for that expression. And this is not the case in Argentina today, nor in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador or Bolivia, whose governments discriminate and retaliate systematically against independent media and journalists who are critical in their reporting.
Governments frequently conduct systematic smear campaigns to discredit journalists and the media. Hugo Chávez has accused journalists of promoting coups; Rafael Correa claims the Ecuadoran media advocate in favor of the bourgeoisie; Evo Morales characterizes the media as servants of imperialism.
Measures against the press are sometimes crude and obvious, such as shutting down media in Venezuela, accusing an Ecuadoran journalist of being a terrorist when he kicked a teargas grenade in the direction of the president or accusing—without any evidence—the executives of the Argentine newspapers Clarín and La Nación of crimes against humanity for having purchased a paper mill during the dictatorship. But sometimes the measures are much more subtle, aimed at undermining the economic base of the media.
Economic pressure on the media comes in many forms, including discrimination in the placement of official advertising or in granting licenses to operate radio and television stations; heavy or unfair taxation; and creating obstacles that affect the import of supplies and the distribution of news.
Discriminatory placement of official advertising to reward the compliant press and to punish the independent and critical press continues to be the most frequent form of corruption and influence, one that is very difficult to combat. Official advertising in Latin America is often a large part of a newspaper’s revenue, yet governments continue to be reluctant to enact norms of transparency that would oblige them to distribute advertising in a fair manner, using technical criteria.
In Argentina, which has a history of governments using this mechanism of pressure, the newspaper La Nación of Buenos Aires revealed that the executive branch spent $27 million in public funds on official advertising, of which 67.5% was allotted to Channel 9, property of a businessman closely allied with the government, even though other channels have larger audiences and higher ratings.
In Nicaragua, several small regional newspapers and radio stations had to shut their doors in 2010 because of the withdrawal of official advertising in retaliation for failing to editorially “benefit” the government of Daniel Ortega. In both Argentina and Nicaragua, unions are politically manipulated to take action against the media.
In both Buenos Aires and Managua, unions— which share common ideologies with the respective governments—frequently block the distribution channels of local newspapers.
In other countries, governments adopt other mechanisms of economic coercion. The implementation of special taxes and holding up newspaper print and other imported materials in customs were characteristic measures of the former governments of Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón and the PRI in Mexico.
The State as “Informer”
In Argentina, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela, the economic stranglehold of the media tends to have shameful extortionist intentions. Governments, their officials or strawmen lie in wait to buy private media in trouble or simply set up new private media with public funds, not to serve as public media (like public broadcasting) but to work in their own self-interest.
The friends of “Kirchnerism” in Argentina eagerly await the Audiovisual Communication Services Act in which Article 161 obliges businesses to divest themselves of media in less than a year, although the government has already been buying up media across the country in order to maintain a well-oiled propaganda machine in the wake of this year’s October elections.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega became the sole private owner of Channels 4 and 5 and radio stations Ya and Sandino with public funds, according to charges of corruption made against him. President Chávez in Venezuela expropriated RCTV in 2007, as well as five other cable channels and 34 radio stations. Meanwhile, he created 238 radio stations, 28 television stations, 340 print media, more than 125 sites for propaganda on the Internet, and a multimedia international news agency.
Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa confiscated television channels and a newspaper, and used public funds to create the newspaper Periódico Popular, which strategically competes against the other print media with the pretext that all the media lie—except for the government press. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales created a network of communitarian radios and television, and purchased print media with funds provided by the Venezuelan government—media that he uses for personal interests.
The methods of indirect censorship are implicit and permitted in laws adopted in Venezuela and Argentina. The approval of similar measures is expected in Ecuador this year, and likely forthcoming in Bolivia and Brazil.
Before the end of 2010, the Venezuelan government hastened to approve statutes restricting media, including the Internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook, through reforms to the Law on Social Responsibility and the Telecommunications Law.
The new norms oblige Internet providers to restrict the diffusion of information and access to websites that criticize the government or promote public disorder or acts against national security.
These attacks are not new. The Chávez government previously attempted to close Globovisión, the only television station with a critical voice, and it has now appropriated 20% of the station ownership. The new norms establish more restrictive criteria for property ownership and operation that make it almost impossible for the station president, Guillermo Zuloaga, who is seeking political asylum in the United States, to continue as the owner.
In Ecuador, debate continues about the proposed Law of Communication, which would create a regulatory council that could meddle with television, radio and print media contents. In January of this year, Rafael Correa proposed a referendum in which two of the ten questions related to the media. In particular, he set forth the need for the state to limit media ownership and its contents when these affect the generally accepted moral code.
Less Democracy, More Attacks
In former times—as well as now—it has been shown that the degree of a government’s authoritarianism is directly proportional the time it spends on controlling the press. And the more time that is spent in this effort, the more stubborn and vengeful the government becomes against journalism.
Attacks on press freedom in Latin America will continue unless democracy and the institutional climate improve. The two, as I said at the beginning of this article, are inseparable. And if democracy deteriorates, attacks against the press will continue to multiply.
Ricardo Trotti is the Press Freedom director and director of the Press Institute of the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, where he directs various projects dealing with the freedom of press and the training of journalists and media executives. He is also a self-taught artist whose illustrations grace the cover of this magazine as well as throughout this issue (see pages 2, 7, 15, 17, 19, 20, 23, 25, 29, 30, and inside back cover).