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Free Press Under Attack Across Region

More than 20 years after the Central American wars ended and the international community turned its attention to other corners of the world, this umbilical stretch of tropical isthmus connecting the new world’s North and South continues to be a hot zone for many journalists.

For much of Central America, the absence of war has not meant peace. The same is true for journalists covering the region.

Since most of Central America started its laborious and jerky transition towards democracy in the 1990s, 34 journalists have been killed in “times of peace,” according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has tracked worldwide journalist killings since 1992.

Though the more recent journalist killings in Central America have not had the same international shock value as the execution of U.S. newsman Bill Stewart by Nicaragua’s National Guard in 1979, or the 1984 La Penca bombing on the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border, which killed three journalists including Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier, the murdering of journalists has continued unabated.

Only now, the threats facing reporters are much more convoluted.

For example, in Honduras – a country with drug trafficking, youth gangs, deep-rooted corruption, political extremists and common street crime – seven reporters have been killed during the first five months of the year. Although the motives are still being investigated, that’s nearly four times more journalists killed in Honduras this year than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined (see separate story on Honduras).

From the threat of drug cartels in Guatemala and youth gangs in Honduras and El Salvador, to political repression in Nicaragua and government intolerance in Panama, threats to the free press in Central America today are more varied and complicated than they were during the height of the armed conflicts of the 1970s and ‘80s.

And that should be a serious concern to all of Central American society, not just journalists. Unlike the work hazards of other professions, threats facing journalists quickly become generalized across the rest of society.

As Carlos Lauria, senior Americas Program coordinator for the CPJ, points out, there is only a skip and a jump separating freedom of the press and freedom of expression. As the worsening of Mexico’s drug infestation has clearly shown, the threats facing journalists quickly become threats to the entire society.

Omar Rábago, deputy officer of freedom of expression for global rights group Article 19, recently finished a fact-finding tour of Central America and reported a “clear consensus about the worsening of freedom of expression in the region.”

In many cases obstructions to free press in Central America are already evolving into broader crackdowns on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The case of Nicaragua under the second coming of President Daniel Ortega exemplifies that evolution of intolerance with time-lapse clarity. In a matter of two short years, the Sandinista government went from identifying the independent press as “enemies” to declaring all critical voices in society to be “enemies of the revolution.”

What started out in early 2007 as an explicit government policy to ignore the independent media and restrict the flow of information rapidly escalated into crackdowns against the media, persecution of journalists and acts of physical violence.

President Ortega has also created a climate of state hostility towards journalists by labeling them as “children of Goebbels” and enemies of the Nicaraguan people (see separate story on Nicaragua).

The Sandinista government’s treatment of civil society groups has paralleled that process, only with a slight delay. Policies initially intended to exclude non-Sandinista groups from participating in government have since become more repressive.

Government opponents brazen enough to openly voice their disapproval with the Ortega government by marching, protesting or picketing, are now attacked in the streets, harassed, threatened, sued and intimidated.

For Robert Rivard, president of the Inter-American Press Association’s (IAPA) Commission on Freedom of Press and Information, the problem of press freedom in Latin America is mostly political.

“After more than two decades of democracy and improving press freedom in the Americas, the emergence of an alliance of leftist governments in the region has led to the undermining of that democracy and free press,” Rivard told The Tico Times in an e-mail.

Rivard blamed the trend on “the disturbing antidemocratic movement” led by Venezuelan  President Hugo Chávez. He said the leaders inthe leftist bloc of nations, including Nicaragua’s Ortega, “openly admire Fidel Castro in Cuba and, in my view, oppose a free press.” But it’s not just the political left that’s putting up obstacles to a free press.

In Panama, right-wing President Ricardo Martinelli, despite claims that he wants positive relations with the media, is also being increasingly criticized for his government’s intolerance towards critical journalism.

Though editors claim the overall climate for journalism is less hostile in Panama than in other countries, they also insist the situation is worsening (see separate story on Panama).

And similar to what has happened in Nicaragua, there’s evidence in Panama suggesting that the government’s intolerance toward the press is expanding into broader measures against freedom of expression.

Ricardo Trotti, IAPA’s press freedom director, said a difference between right- and left-wing governments is that the former is sneakier about violating freedom of the press, while the latter is more open about it.

He said right-wing governments tend to be more secretive in their violations of press freedom, perhaps because they realize what they are doing is wrong. Left-wing governments, on the other hand, “have a problem with the press as part of their political platform,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Central America’s northern triangle, the threats against journalists have become much more varied and complex than the hurdles imposed by intolerant governments.

CPJ’s Lauria notes that transnational crime syndicates – in the form of Mexican drug cartels and youth gangs – are intimidating journalists into self-censorship, or silencing them with violence.

In Guatemala and Honduras alone, where 27 journalists have been killed since 1992, the quality of journalism has suffered as reporters avoid reporting on crime, corruption and malfeasance, Lauria said.

“In Guatemala, the violence in the city and the control of organized crime in the rest of the country provokes black holes of information,” said Article 19’s Rábago.

Weak democracies and the lack of state institutions in rural areas have created a wild-west atmosphere where people who live by the gun, die by the gun.

Many journalists realize that and have reshaped their profession into a simpler form of survival journalism, which in itself is an affront to free expression.

Since The Tico Times was founded in 1956, the newspaper has had a strong and influential voice on behalf of press-freedom in Costa Rica and Central America. In 1995, The Tico Times’ work for press freedom in Costa Rica earned it the Inter-American Press Association’s Grand Prize for Press Freedom in the Americas (see story on Costa Rica).

In that same spirit of free press, free expression and respect for the profession of journalism, The Tico Times is pleased to bring you our special Press Freedom Supplement.


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