Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Press Freedom in Decline in the Western Hemisphere

Freedom in retreat?

"No country safe from the censorship power," concludes the IAPA

Charleston, SC (October 6, 2015).- The 71st General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA ), which gathered more than 300 media executives and journalists, ended today after five days of sessions. The following document summarizes the debates and discussions that took place over press freedom in the Western Hemisphere.

of the 71th General Assembly
October 2 – 6, 2015
Unremitting violence against media outlets and journalists; the proliferation of laws, initiatives, and pressures from governments attempting to control the free flow of information both in the traditional media and on new media platforms; restrictions on access to public information; the discriminatory placement of government advertising; and greater concentration of media outlets in the hands of those with ties to governments. These were the warnings sounded most loudly by the publishers gathered at the 71st General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association.

No country in the Americas is safe from the wave of censorship that is spreading like a massive oil spill. This is true even in countries that have traditionally upheld press freedom, in some cases under the paradoxical pretext of promoting pluralism, of ensuring the “right to forget,” or of stopping “hate speech.” This, combined with the rising prominence of thugs affiliated with drug trafficking and urban gangs, poses clear risks for civil liberties, and for freedom of expression and freedom of the press in particular, and hence for the strengthening of democracy in the Americas.

The unlawful actions of organized crime, drug trafficking gangs, and parapolice groups — many of which have gone unpunished — have left a toll of 11 journalists killed since March 2015: three each in Brazil and Mexico, two in Guatemala, and one each in Colombia, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. In Colombia, the statute of limitations ran out on two 1995 killings, although it should be noted that former Congressman Ferney Tapasco was convicted of ordering the murder of Orlando Sierra.

Various countries in the region saw physical assaults, attacks, acts of coercion and threats against journalists and media outlets for reasons related to their work. In Bolivia, three journalists were detained and temporarily jailed in retaliation for their reporting on government corruption. Acts of repression were directed against reporters covering elections in Guatemala and Argentina, and against those reporting on conflicts and social protests in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.

In Venezuela, where the government is establishing totalitarian control over the media, 287 violations of press freedom have been documented so far this year, including assaults on journalists, efforts to criminalize the work of journalists, and restrictions on access to information. In a positive development, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling in early September ordering the return of equipment and licenses to RCTV, but this ruling has been ignored thus far by the administration of Nicolás Maduro.

In Cuba, despite the reestablishment of relations between the Cuban and U.S. governments, little progress has been made in freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of the press, and two journalists remain behind bars. The methods of repression include censorship of critical websites, inspection of emails, suspension of mobile phone service, and physical and verbal attacks on activists and independent journalists.

In Ecuador, the climate of repression from oversight entities tasked with enforcing the Communication Act remains in place. Penalized media outlets and organizations invoked their constitutional right to resistance. A proceeding that would have dissolved FUNDAMEDIOS was dismissed, but the threats remain. The Saturday presidential addresses continue, in which those who dare to dissent from the government line are called out and stigmatized. In Argentina and Venezuela, the respective presidents abusively use national networks to air partisan propaganda and lambaste their critics.

Abuses and the discriminatory use of government advertising are on the rise in Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico.

In the United States, the Justice Department revealed that in 2014 it issued two subpoenas and a search warrant, and that it twice authorized the questioning of media outlets and journalists. Two reporters who covered last year’s unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, were charged with “interference” and “trespassing.”

Restrictions on access to government-held information were exacerbated in Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

In Chile, proposed laws could constitute severely undermine press freedom, including through interference in the editorial line of media outlets, restrictions on property rights and the undermining of the right to free enterprise, harm to journalistic enterprises and journalists, and restrictions on access to information.

In Panama, a bill currently under consideration would require journalists to be members of professional associations and would establish prison terms for illegally practicing journalism, among other serious restrictions. The investigations into illegal wiretappings of journalists are ongoing.

The concentration of media outlets in the hands of government entities or of people with ties to the government is an increasing phenomenon in the Americas. In Paraguay, for example, a business group linked to President Horacio Cartes purchased a group of media outlets, triggering controversy over the concentration of media in the hands of those close to the government. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega maintains firm control over media outlets and journalists. Only one television station, one radio station, and one newspaper remain as independent media outlets; the remainder are owned by the Ortega family or by people close to them. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa failed to fulfill his commitment to reprivatize the media outlets that had been expropriated by his administration. And Argentina has seen a proliferation of multimedia groups born and raised on government advertising, despite paltry audience numbers.

In Uruguay, the online surveillance program of the Interior Ministry has caused concern, and pending before the Supreme Court are 18 claims seeking to have the Law of Audiovisual Communication Services declared unconstitutional.

In Costa Rica, meanwhile, a proposed law on radio and television that was hostile to private enterprises and press freedom was set aside, and initiatives to regulate government advertising, decriminalize the work of journalists, and legalize community radio stations are under consideration. Still, free journalism continues to face a number of threats.

Also worth noting are the coordinated efforts of press freedom organizations in the region, such as the recently formed Quito Forum, which put forward an action plan to demand that press freedom be upheld in Ecuador.

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