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Press Freedom in the Americas: Cause for Concern?

By Rachel Schwartz
June 21, 2011

Threats to press freedom continue to undermine democratic stability throughout the region.

OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression Catalina Botero and Americas Program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Carlos Lauría outlined these challenges in a conversation held at the Dialogue on June 21.

While noting the tremendous gains made over the last three decades—including constitutional guarantees for the freedom of expression and the repeal of censorship laws—Botero emphasized how high levels of violence against journalists stem from weak judicial and security institutions. Organized criminal elements are infiltrating these state organs, preventing them from investigating and prosecuting cases.

Lauría explained how a climate of impunity generates “fear and intimidation that only produces greater silence and censorship.” Mexico is the country most affected by the violence and resulting silence. Ten journalists were murdered there in the last year alone, while thirty have been killed or disappeared since President Felipe Calderón assumed office in late 2006.

Both speakers enumerated other troubling threats to press freedom, such as the use of state resources—both financial and legal—to restrict free speech. In Ecuador, two executives and an opinion editor from the newspaper El Universo face imprisonment and an $80 million fine for published remarks critical of President Rafael Correa.

Lauría pointed to other ways governments use laws and regulations to suppress the media. Venezuela’s Law of Social Responsibility and Ecuador’s Communication Law both undercut free expression with vaguely worded restrictions and heavy fines.

A citizen’s right to information is fundamental to a functioning democracy, according to Botero, who called on governments without laws guaranteeing access to information to adopt them; those with poorly written laws to reform them; and those with good laws to implement them. She pointed to Mexico and Chile as having exemplary laws in this regard.

Botero noted several indirect forms of censorship that prevail in Latin America. State officials utilize seemingly legitimate legal avenues—such as the placement of government advertising—to reward or punish media outlets for their coverage, thus stifling “the vigor of public debate.”  Indirect censorship has also produced what Botero called “a notorious deficiency of pluralism.” Marginalized groups such as indigenous communities and women often lack regular access to the media.

Lauría called on governments to strengthen legal structures and provide greater protection for journalists, and Botero called on governments to pass and implement antitrust legislation to increase access and diversity.