Journalists at Risk in Central America: What Can Be Done?

“It is uncomfortable to be the story when our job is to tell the story,” contended Carlos Dada, founder and editor of the Salvadoran online journal El Faro, in describing the increased threats to journalists covering organized crime and political issues in Central America. Dada was joined by Julie López, senior reporter for Guatemala’s Plaza Pública, and Carlos Fernando Chamorro, founder and editor of Nicaragua’s Confidencial, to discuss the mounting risks faced by journalists in the region and how to better protect them.

Challenges to journalism in Central America have traditionally had less to do with physical attacks and more to do with media ownership catering to powerful political interests and thus impeding balanced reporting. However, as organized crime and gang violence continues to spread throughout the isthmus, violent threats have been on the rise. Dada’s El Faro in particular has been subject to increasing threats since exposing the links between the Cartel de Texas organized crime syndicate and Salvadoran congressmen, police chiefs, judges, and business leaders. El Faro’s reporters have been followed and harassed when meeting with sources, and gang leaders even issued an explicit threat against Dada after El Faro broke the story of the government-negotiated truce in which top mara leaders received benefits in exchange for reducing violence.

According to the panelists, the climate of fear resulting from attacks on journalists has had a devastating impact on the quality of reporting in the region. As López put it, the penetration of organized crime has meant that reporting on related violence and corruption is “like walking into a minefield,” forcing many to abandon hard-hitting investigative work out of fear of reprisals. Media owners often lack the funds to take extra measures to ensure the safety of their correspondents, leaving reporters’ “lives in their own hands” and fostering self-censorship. Moreover, because most crimes against journalists are never investigated and remain in impunity, they send a terrorizing message to the rest of society. “If organized crime groups kill someone like a journalist and nothing happens, what will happen to someone who is not in the public eye?” questioned López.

In addition to increasing violence, attacks on the Central American press have also come in the form of non-repressive mechanisms such as media ownership and laws. Such measures pose the biggest problem in Nicaragua, where eight of the nine national television stations are controlled by President Daniel Ortega or a close associate (Ortega only owned 4 percent of the shares of one channel when he came to power). Chamorro contended that the Ortega administration has relied on “a policy of political intimidation and fiscal cooptation” to silence media critics, control advertisements, and dictate how the news is reported. Legal norms have also been utilized to crackdown on journalists; in 2008, government officials raided the offices of Chamorro’s organization, accusing it of money laundering.

The panelists agreed that international support has been a primary force bringing attention to the risks faced by journalists in Central America. López noted that “external support in embarrassing governments into investigating crimes against journalists helps,” while Dada called the international community “the greatest protection.” Social networking and new media have also been valuable tools for enhancing political consciousness and raising awareness about the dangerous environment faced by journalists. Despite the bleak situation, the panelists agreed that these expanding international networks and evolving social media instruments are reasons for optimism.

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