NEW YORK – Reporting the news has never been an easy job in Latin America, but these days, the journalism profession appears riskier than ever.
“Criminal organizations have silenced the press in Central America, perhaps nowhere as much as in Honduras,” said Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “Rampant gang violence, the presence of powerful drug cartels from Mexico and the deep societal polarization that followed the 2009 ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya all have contributed to make the work of reporters there even more dangerous.”
Sixteen journalists have been killed in Honduras so far in 2013, he said.
“The attitude of Honduran authorities is aggravating the problem,” Lauría added. “They have downplayed the threat, arguing that many of these cases are not related to journalism. They have shown incompetence and negligence in investigating these crimes.”
Mexico, meanwhile, remains the deadliest country for journalists in the Americas.
“In the last six and a half years, more than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared. Media outlets have been bombed, websites have been hacked, and journalists have been forced to flee. But the most devastating consequence is this climate of fear and intimidation. Reporters work in a climate of terror, and this produces widespread censorship in newsrooms,” he said.
It’s a similar story in Brazil, where four reporters have been killed this year – three of them in reprisals for their work.
“This has made Brazil one of the most dangerous countries in the region. While reporters are more vulnerable in rural areas where law enforcement is weak, those who work in larger urban centers are not immune either,” Lauría said.
The Argentine-born press-freedom advocate made his remarks Oct. 23 in New York, following presentation of the 2013 Maria Moore Cabot Prizes – the world’s oldest international annual journalism award.
“It’s very tough to be a journalist in Latin America,” said John Friedman, director of the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes. “We’re trying to use the prize as a way to encourage more solidarity among journalists on the entire continent – both to protect themselves but also to raise the quality of journalism in Latin America.”
This year’s recipients include Mauri König, special reporter for Gazeta do Povonewspaper in Curitiba, Brazil; Alejandro Santos Rubino, director and editor-in-chief of Colombia’s Revista Semana; Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer at The New Yorker, and Donna DeCesare, a documentary photographer and freelance writer who has worked extensively in Central America.
In addition, Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez – considered one of the hemisphere’s most prominent bloggers – accepted the citation originally awarded her in 2009, due to Cuban government restrictions preventing her from traveling to the United States at that time.
“I don’t think we could have picked a better group of winners this year,” said Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Journalism School. “They make us proud, especially as we mark the 75th anniversary [of the Cabot prizes].”
Silence and fear
DeCesare, who earned the award for her documentation of El Salvador’s criminal gangs, said the fear of violence has “eroded the very fabric of society” throughout Central America.
“When you go as a reporter into the community, no one wants to talk to you because they’re terrified,” she said. “One of the things photojournalism does is connect us emotionally, in ways which humanize the actors in the narratives that we tell. It plays a role in getting people to think about what needs to be done next.”
“It’s important to see them as human beings and not just as criminals,” she said. “I’ve always tried to highlight the work of NGOs and government programs that focus on treating violence as a public health issue, as opposed to just a criminal justice issue.”
König said crime and police reporters are particularly vulnerable to drug traffickers, and in big cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, reporting on organized crime can be especially dangerous. “In the border regions, where trafficking in sex and drugs is rife, journalists covering those topics are at risk, while in the Amazon region and central Brazil, the coverage of agrarian conflicts and illegal occupation of public lands can trigger reprisals,” he wrote.
Since 1991, he said, 25 journalists have been murdered throughout Brazil. “These were journalists who were doing their work, informing society, not journalists on vacation,” he said.
Clarinha Glock, author of a study first published by the Inter-American Press Association in 2006, said that while violence was once committed mainly against radio broadcasters and media professionals in the interior, “recently, we have seen these types of crimes in Rio de Janeiro and against the employees of large media companies.”
Breaking down press in Venezuela
Besides the threat of physical violence, said Lauría, “the most pressing issue for media in Latin America is an array of restrictive regulatory laws imposed by governments that have been popularly elected, showing disdain for the institutions of democracy, seeking to stifle dissent and control the flow of information.”
The most glaring example of that, he said, is Venezuela.
“In the last 14 years, Venezuela has used different laws and measures to progressively break down the private press, with a majority in the National Assembly and control over judicial authorities. Dozens of broadcasters have been closed, critical coverage censored and journalists threatened. Venezuela has served as a model for other leaders in the region who are trying to weaken the press – and no one has learned their lesson better than Ecuador.”
Lauría called Ecuador “one of the most repressive nations in the Western Hemisphere” when it comes to media freedom.
“They’ve just passed one of the most restrictive pieces of legislation in Latin America – the Communications Law – approved by Congress in June. The president himself and government officials have also filed a series of debilitating defamation lawsuits,” he said. “And in the past few years, Cuba has projected an image of opening up economically, but unfortunately the government of Raúl Castro has not taken any important steps to promote free expression.”
Anderson spoke at length during the Oct. 23 panel about recent changes in Cuba.
“This country has not had any press freedom for a very long time. It’s all flowed down from Communist Party directives,” he said. Yet despite “1998 speeds on the Internet and an hourly rate that would knock out an average Cuban’s weekly salary,” there’s definitely much more freedom to travel these days – particularly for dissidents like Sánchez who have been allowed to fly to the United States and then return to Cuba.
“It’s a cliché to repeat that Raúl is a pragmatist, but that seems to be the case,” he said. “I sense that we may see an opening in the press arena, at least to criticize more openly those aspects of public administration that the regime itself wants to reform. It’s an opening that wasn’t there before.”
Anderson added: “There’s obviously been a decision that keeping dissidents on the island is counterproductive. The big looming question for those who work in the virtual world is whether they can extend that [opening] to the actual world.”