The Fragile State of Media Freedom in Latin America

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written by
Karin Deutsch Karlekar
Project Director of "Freedom of the Press"

The current state of media freedom in Latin America was driven home in early May, when three journalists were murdered in Mexico within a week of World Press Freedom Day. This dramatic example underscores a larger trend identified by Freedom House in the recently released Freedom of the Press 2012 report, which noted that a range of negative developments over the past decade have left media freedom on the defensive in much of Central and South America.

The Americas is the second most open region in terms of media freedom worldwide, with 15 countries (43 percent) rated Free, 16 (46 percent) rated Partly Free, and 4 (11 percent) rated Not Free. However, these figures are significantly influenced by the open media environments of North America and much of the Caribbean, which tend to offset the less rosy picture in Central and South America. In Hispanic America, meaning the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the region, only 3 (15 percent) of the countries were rated Free, and just 1.5 percent of the population lived in Free media environments.

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Also worrying are the trends over time. Press freedom blossomed in the Americas in the 1990s, as military governments gave way to civilian regimes, but the region has seen considerable backsliding during the past decade. Violence against journalists has increased, legal cases have been used to intimidate critical voices, and state funding and advertising have been directed toward progovernment media outlets while oppositionist outlets have been shuttered by regulatory controls and other forms of harassment. In each of the past five years, the regional average score for the Americas has declined. It is the only region globally to have exhibited such a pattern.
                                                                   
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A closer examination suggests that there are two primary reasons behind these compounded declines: a rise in violence by nonstate actors and criminal groups, as in Mexico and Honduras, and overt, sustained government hostility to media criticism, which occurred first in Venezuela, and more recently in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

Mexico, which has shown one of the deepest deteriorations in terms of its press freedom score, fell to Not Free status in 2010 and continued to suffer from high levels of criminal violence in 2011, the year covered by the 2012 report. The violence affected both professional journalists and communicators who used online social media to bypass self-censorship in the traditional press.


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Title: Latin America Countries with the Greatest Declines

Most other cases of sustained decline, however, are the result of official hostility toward the press, particularly from the executive branch. Legal and regulatory pressures have been successfully applied to suppress critical voices, whether in the form of defamation or desacato cases, such as President Rafael Correa’s $40 million suit against El Universo in Ecuador, or through harsh legislation, such as Venezuela’s Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television, and Electronic Media, which contains overly broad restrictions on content. Politicized licensing and regulatory decisions in both countries have also led to the suspension or closure of dozens of private radio and television stations.

In addition, aggressive rhetoric by high-level officials against the media profession—such as Correa’s characterization of journalists as “assassins with ink”—has contributed to a prevailing climate of polarization and impunity. Attacks on oppositionist media by lower-level officials and police, as well as by societal groups, have become more commonplace in these environments, and cases of physical harassment against journalists are not adequately investigated or prosecuted by the authorities. Governments also deny access to information, in part by declining to hold press conferences or interact regularly with journalists.

Finally, official pressure can be felt in the economic sphere. The strategic allocation of state advertising to reward friendly media outlets and punish perceived opponents has become a key tool in Argentina, according to a number of sources. Meanwhile, in Bolivia and Ecuador the state has assumed a growing share of media ownership, following the example of Venezuela, where the government has actively subsidized or opened media outlets and then used them to propagate progovernment messages.

The recent declines in this region, which had previously seen such broad advances in media freedom, are a stark reminder that such freedoms are fragile and must be nurtured and defended when they come under attack. Sustained advocacy by local and international monitors to highlight violations is essential, as are the ongoing efforts to encourage positive legal reforms on freedom of information, as in Brazil; the decriminalization of libel, as in El Salvador; and combating impunity, as in Colombia. Given that the bulk of the countries in Latin America are still in the middle range of possible press freedom scores, it is not too late to reverse the current trends and ensure that truly repressive media environments remain the exception in the region, rather than the norm.

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