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CPJ testimony: Press freedom in the Americas

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon testified today before the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, saying that while democracies are prevalent in Latin America, the press continues to operate with few institutional protections. This statement was submitted into the record on Monday.

Citing the example of Brazilian reporters exposing a massive corruption scheme carried out by President Fernando Collor de Mello, Simon noted that many Latin American countries have a strong history of independent and critical media. Despite this, however, journalists in the region are increasingly vulnerable to both government repression and violence. Simon also highlighted CPJ's concern about the press freedom environment in a number of countries, including Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Cuba.

Simon's full testimony is below.

Testimony before the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere

Committee on Foreign Affairs

United States House of Representatives

Submitted by Joel Simon

Executive Director

Committee to Protect Journalists                             

June 16, 2010

Press Freedom in the Americas


I would like to commend Chairman Engel and the members of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere for holding this important hearing and for giving the Committee to Protect Journalists the opportunity to testify before you. My name is Joel Simon, and I’m CPJ’s executive director. CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending press freedom and the rights of journalists worldwide.

I originally joined CPJ in 1998 as the Americas program coordinator after working as a freelance journalist for a decade in Latin America. While my responsibilities at CPJ today are global, I retain a keen interest in Latin America and continue to follow developments in the region closely.

What I have seen during more than a decade at CPJ is that while democracy has become firmly entrenched in much of Latin America, the press continues to operate with few institutional protections. Despite the strong tradition of independent and critical media in many countries of the region, journalists are increasingly vulnerable to both government repression and violence.

A decade ago, the Latin American region was experiencing a rapid expansion of press freedom including a series of “Watergate”-style reports that rocked governments in several countries. Through their aggressive reporting on a massive corruption scheme carried out by President Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazilian journalists helped bring down a government. In Argentina, investigative journalists exposed the human rights abuses committed during the years of dictatorship and also broke story after story about corruption scandals in the administration of President Carlos Menem.

Governments in many parts of the region responded not by putting in place institutional safeguards to protect the media’s watchdog role, but rather by taking note of the growing power of the media and finding new strategies to retain the upper hand.

Today, we are going to hear from witnesses from two countries, Venezuela and Nicaragua, where governments are pursuing an effective strategy marginalizing and even vilifying the media while using control of government institutions, including the judiciary, to carry out legal action against critics.

CPJ published a report last July outlining the way in which President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has employed these kinds of tactics. Ortega has set the tone by calling Nicaraguan journalists “sons of Goebbels.” Critics have faced punitive tax raids and criminal defamation suits. The CPJ report, entitled Daniel Ortega’s Media War, has been entered into the record.

Regarding Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has employed a similar strategy, vilifying the press while using politicized administrative procedures to force critical broadcasters off the air. I would like to note that on Friday authorities ordered the arrest of Globovisión’s President Guillermo Zoloaga and his son. The fact that the warrants came a week after President Chávez publicly lamented that Zuloaga remained free is alarming, especially since Globovisión has been the target of a barrage of government investigations. The decision is part of a systematic campaign of harassment of the private media that has resulted in the closure of Venezuela’s main critical broadcaster, RCTV, as well as dozens of private radio stations. 

While in some countries in the region journalists face government harassment, in others the problem is government neglect. Mexico is the leading example. The situation confronting the press there has become incredibly dramatic in recent years. More than 30 journalists have been killed and disappeared since President Felipe Calderón came to office in December 2006. Most of them are local reporters covering drug trafficking, crime, or corruption. Impunity for these crimes is nearly complete. Pervasive self-censorship, a devastating effect of this wave of unprecedented violence, is undermining the basic right to freedom of expression.

In October 2006, U.S. reporter Brad Will was shot and killed while covering protests in Oaxaca State. A video of the incident appears to show a man later identified as a member of a pro-government militia firing a weapon directly at Will. Despite this evidence, no one has been convicted in the killing.

CPJ is calling on the Mexican government to enact laws making it a federal offense to use violence to limit the right to freedom of expression. President Calderón told us in a meeting in June 2008 that he would support a federal approach, but so far legislation has not been enacted.

While Mexico remains the most deadly country for the press in Latin America, Honduras, where six journalists have been killed since the beginning of the year, has also been getting attention. CPJ is carrying out an investigation into these killings to determine whether there is some sort of orchestrated campaign against the media. What can be said at this point is that in both Mexico and Honduras, impunity in the killings of journalists is the norm.

In fact, impunity is a terrible threat to press freedom, not just in Latin America but on a global scale. Each year, CPJ produces a global Impunity Index, ranking the countries around the world where the killers of journalists go free. Mexico is ninth on the list. Several Latin American countries, however, have actually seen their ranking improve because they have been able to solve outstanding murder cases. By solving a case in 2009, Brazil fell below our threshold for inclusion and came off the list entirely. Colombia, while in fifth place on the list, saw its ranking improve over the last two years as violence against the press—and throughout the country—declined dramatically.

Yet, even as the violence against the press has diminished in Colombia, serious problems remain. The press is weaker financially and institutionally. President Alvaro Uribe Vélez maintained an extremely adversarial relationship with the media throughout his administration, angrily denouncing critical journalists and at times publicly linking them to the leftist guerrillas. In March 2009, the Uribe government was caught up in a major scandal when it was revealed that the DAS, the government national intelligence agency, had been wiretapping political opponents, magistrates, human rights activists, and journalists. CPJ’s own e-mails were intercepted. Several senior DAS officials were subsequently arrested. In a meeting with a CPJ delegation in February, Uribe told us that “illegal spies are enemies of Colombia.”

Finally, I would like to talk about Cuba, which is far and away the most repressive environment for the press in Latin America. In fact, Cuba is one of the most repressive countries in the world in this regard. There are 22 journalists currently jailed in Cuba, which means the country ranks third behind Iran and China. There was some modest hope after Fidel Castro stepped aside in 2006 that conditions for the media would improve, but that has not happened under President Raúl Castro. Cuba has seen the emergence of an incipient blogging culture which, for now, has been tolerated. We commend President Obama for giving an e-mail interview to Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez shortly after she was detained and beaten by Cuban security agents in November. The CPJ report, titled “Chronicling Cuba, bloggers offer fresh hope,” has been entered into the record.

Efforts by the United States government to protect and promote press freedom are vital because we live in an information society. Those who are deprived of basic information are in essence marginalized. The freedom to seek and receive information is not only a human right it; is a prerequisite for full participation in the global economy.

U.S. policy should be to promote the exchange of information and ideas on a global scale, not just in Latin America. In signing into law the Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act on May 17, President Obama said, “What this act does is it sends a strong message from the United States government and from the State Department that we are paying attention to how other governments are operating when it comes to the press.” CPJ is also encouraged that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has made the promotion of a free and open Internet a central goal of U.S. foreign policy.

A consistent and principled position in defense of press freedom and freedom of expression is rooted in U.S. history and ideals and will help build good will around the world. While maintaining this commitment on a global level, the U.S. should use the particular influence it has in Latin America to ensure that journalists in the region are able to do this job freely and safety. Those whose rights are violated should know that they will have the support of the U.S. government in seeking justice.  


Press freedom issues by country

Mexico

  • Mexico has become one of world’s most dangerous countries for the press. More than 30 reporters and media support workers have been killed or disappeared since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, CPJ research shows.
  • Besides those who were murdered or have vanished, dozens of journalists have been attacked, kidnapped, or forced into exile in connection with their coverage of crime and corruption.
  • Reporters covering the drug trade are often targeted by powerful criminal drug cartels, which are frequently working in complicity with corrupt officials. Collusion between authorities and drug gangs is so pervasive that it undermines justice and creates the perception that the system is controlled by the criminal groups.
  • CPJ has documented an increasing number of assaults committed by federal forces since the federal government deployed thousands of troops and federal police to combat organized crime in December 2006.
  • Lethal violence is producing a devastating effect on the media as scores of reporters and media are increasingly indulging in self-censorship in vast areas of the country.
  • Violence by organized crime has decimated investigative journalism. Reporting on basic information about criminal activities also place journalists at direct risk.
  • Impunity is the norm in crimes against the press. Mexico’s overburdened criminal justice system has failed to prosecute more than 90 percent of press freedom-related crimes, CPJ research shows, perpetuating a climate of fear and intimidation in which unsolved attacks become the norm.
  • The failure to prosecute journalists’ murders has made Mexico the ninth worst country in the world on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of the population. Mexico’s low ranking puts it among conflict-ravaged countries as Iraq and Somalia.
  • CPJ and other international and domestic press groups believe that the federal government must intervene more forcefully to address this national problem, and assume its responsibility for guaranteeing the right of free expression enshrined in articles 6 and 7 of the Mexican Constitution.

Colombia

  • Illegal espionage is one of the most serious threats against press freedom in Colombia. Since 2004, national intelligence agents have subjected journalists, politicians, judges, and human rights defenders to illegal phone tapping, e-mail interception, and surveillance, CPJ research shows.
  • The unlawful spying, which stretched into late 2009, was carried out by the national intelligence agency, known as DAS, which operates under direct supervision of the Colombian president. 
  • Officials have spied on critical journalists sand international human rights groups, including CPJ. Thousands of e-mails and telephone conversations were intercepted. The country’s most prominent journalists were among those monitored.
  • Journalists are since taking steps to prevent their phones calls are not intercepted or their emails hacked. Sensitive issues are not discussed on telephone conversations or emails.
  • Confidential sources, which are becoming more reluctant to talk to the press, are endangered as a result of illegal spying.
  • Illegal spying is not restricted only to Colombia. It also a represents a challenge to press freedom in countries like Argentina and Venezuela.
  • While lethal violence against the press has subsided in the last five years, four journalists have been killed since 2009, at least two of them in direct reprisal for their work. Provincial journalists continue to face harassment from all sides of Colombia’s five-decade-long civil conflict.

Venezuela

  • The Venezuelan government is engaged in a systematic campaign of harassment against critical media outlets in an attempt to stifle dissent and control the flow of information.
  • In the past few months, President Hugo Chávez Frías and his government have intensified their years-long crackdown on the private media, according to CPJ research.
  • Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the private television network Globovisión, was arrested in late March after being accused of spreading false news and offending Chávez in remarks made during a meeting of the Inter American Press Association. He was released a few hours later, but has been barred from leaving Venezuela and, if convicted, could be sentenced to five years in jail under archaic provisions of the country’s penal code. On June 11, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Zuloaga and his son, based on a usury and conspiracy accusation.
  • In January, Venezuelan regulators ordered cable and satellite operators to stop carrying RCTV International, one of the country’s best known broadcasters, alleging that the broadcaster violated a requirement to air President Hugo Chávez’s speeches. RCTV has been operating as a paid subscription channel since July 16, 2007, after the government pulled the station from public airwaves in May of that year. 
  • Arbitrary decisions stripped more than 30 private radio stations of their licenses in late 2009.
  • Globovisión, known for its harsh criticism of the Venezuelan government, has been the target of continued government harassment. Venezuelan regulators have opened five investigations against the private broadcaster that could end with the revocation of its license. 
  • In August 2009, a group of more than 30 armed pro-government militants stormed the premises of Globovisión and set off tear gas and injured a police and two employees.  
  • Journalists and free press advocates who express viewpoints that oppose the government have been the target of unfounded accusations of media terrorism, incitement of violence, and working for a foreign power to discredit Venezuela.    

Cuba

  • With 22 reporters and editors in jail, Cuba is the third-worst jailer of journalists in the world after Iran and China. These imprisoned journalists are often held in inhumane conditions, deprived of wholesome food and adequate medical care. Their health is worsening, and their families are harassed by authorities, CPJ research shows.
  • Most of the jailed journalists were imprisoned on March 18-20, 2003, when Cuban state agents arrested 75 dissidents, including 29 journalists, in a roundup known as the Black Spring. Within weeks, authorities held summary trials and sentenced these journalists to prison terms of up to 28 years on vague antistate charges connected to their reporting.
  • Over the past seven years, Cuba has freed a small number of journalists in exchange for international political concessions, but it has released none since February 2008, CPJ research shows.
  • A lively blogging culture has emerged on the island in the last three years, despite Havana’s attempts to control the Internet. Some bloggers are examining controversial subjects considered off-limits by the mainstream media, like official corruption and human rights abuses, a risky enterprise considering that the majority of imprisoned Cuban journalists were targeted for work distributed online.
  • In a country where the government has complete control of the media, independent journalists working for foreign-based news Web sites are routinely threatened and harassed by security police. Laws and regulations restricting Internet access continue to be among the most repressive in the world. 

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Comments

Thanks for your efforts and for mentioning the important case of Brad Will, one of many. Juan Manuel Martinez was arrested and held in jail for many months wrongfully in his murder in an effort to cover it up. This was among other things an attempt to gain credence so that the Mexican forces could continue to receive the impunity rewarding Merida Initiative funding, modeled on the disastrous Plan Colombia. Also, in Brad's final tragic video were actual government agents and police, not just "militia". They are still at large: Juan Carlo Soriano, municipal police officer; Manuel Aguilar, council personnel chief; Able Santiago Zarate; and Pedro Carmona, mayor of Felipe Carrillo Puerto de Santa Lucia del Camino. Thanks for your efforts in this matter.

Cordial saludo. Soy autor del libro: Los Periodistas y el Derecho a la Información en Colombia. Invito a conocer mi portal: www.azaelcarvajal.com Allí puede copiarse un resumen gratuito de la obra. También leer mis reflexiones en el blog semanal sobre temas acerca de la libertad de expresión, derechos humanos, democracia, libertades públicas, medios de comunicación. Deseo tener amigos académicos para intercambiar temas, publicaciones, discusiones. Estaré pendiente de buenas noticias. Atentamente, Azael Carvajal Martínez

Azael Carvajal Martínez June 18, 2010 9:42:24 PM ET