As civil societies continued to blossom in the Americas, the press took its watchdog role seriously
in 1995, helping to unravel corruption, impunity and abuse of power in the region.
But in doing so, the news media became targets of retaliation from the corrupt ruling
classes, politicians and criminals who often were the focus of their stories. During
the year, 10
journalists were killed because of their work, and one other murder is unconfirmed;
and in at least 60 other incidents, journalists were imprisoned, beaten, shot at
or threatened with death.
The level of violence against the press was not as high as it had been in previous
years, but the involvement of organized crime became a worrisome new trend, especially
in Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Paraguay. Even in Canada, where criminal
biker gangs have built up a profitable market in barbiturates, a reporter was shot
in the knees by gang members angered by his coverage of their drug dealing.
In countries like Guatemala and Colombia, where criminals have acted with impunity
for decades as a result of the judicial disorder caused by civil strife, many attacks
against the press were carried out with the knowledge or participation of corrupt
army and police officers. Guatemalan army officers known to have committed human rights
violations during the civil war, for instance, have stepped into criminal rings of
kidnappers, car thieves and drug traffickers. Journalists who took on these issues
faced abuses that were sometimes filed away as common crimes but which ultimately were
tied to their work.
A similar pattern evolved along the U.S.-Mexico border, where cases of overnment officials
are the suspected assassins or intellectual authors of the killings. All the murders
occurred in the interior of the country--further evidence that although a free and robust press works unabated in principal cities, provincial reporters work with
In Brazil, where four journalists were killed for uncovering corruption and environmental
abuses, policemen and local government officials are the suspected assassins or intellectual
authors of the killings. All the murders occurred in the interior of the country--further evidence that although a free and robust press works unabated in
principal cities, provincial reporters work with little protection.
The governments of Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile tried to introduce legislation
restricting the news media. In Argentina and Chile, where the press has won considerable
leverage, these efforts were thwarted by public protests from influential media organizations. At year's end, the government of Colombian President Ernesto Samper,
who continued to rule despite serious allegations that he received money from drug
cartels, imposed press restrictions that forbade the media from carrying any statements
made by leftist guerrillas, drug traffickers and common criminals.
By the end of 1995, Peru was the only country in the hemisphere with imprisoned journalists.
Eight who were unfairly accused of collaborating with terrorists remain in jail,
serving sentences of up to 20 years.
Good news came from Costa Rica, where the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional
the licensing of journalists. The decision ended a 30-year reign by the Colegio de
Periodistas, which had ruled that only journalists with a Costa Rican university
degree could work legally in the country. Costa Rica's licensing model is one that has been
in use or under serious consideration in several other Latin American countries,
and it is hoped that the court ruling will encourage other nations to reconsider
the licensing issue.
In another positive development, journalists in several countries organized to combat
attacks on the media. Most of these efforts were modeled after the Peruvian Institute
of Press and Society (IPYS), which, since its inception in 1994, has helped reduce
press abuses in Peru with timely intervention and international backing. In Colombia,
a group of journalists led by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez created a press
defense committee at a meeting co-sponsored by CPJ. And in Cuba, independent journalists created their own press agencies and fought for the right to publish their work
outside the country since the state-run media will not accept stories from reporters
blacklisted by the government.
was program coordinator for the Americas from December 1993 until December 1995.
Before coming to CPJ, Arana covered Latin America as a free-lance correspondent for
several newspapers and magazines, including the
Miami Herald, the
Baltimore Sun and
U.S. News & World Report. She also worked as a senior correspondent for the
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and was a staff reporter at the
San Jose Mercury News. A native Spanish speaker, Arana has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia
the research associate for the Americas, researched and wrote the majority of the
1995 cases for the region. She has a master's degree in political science from the
University of Mainz in Germany and has studied in Argentina. She is fluent in German
CPJ's work in the Americas in 1995 was funded in part by a grant from the Robert R.
McCormick Tribune Foundation.
Country-by-country reports of attacks on the press in this region are available at CPJ's Web site and in the print edition of this book.
Ever since the Cuban revolution 36 years ago, the Castro government has viewed the press as its mouthpiece; media
censorship has been as much a part of Cuban life as food lines. But that notion is
being challenged by a group of out-of-work, independent journalists who were fired
from their official jobs because of irreverent thinking about the revolution and its future.
They have begun to market stories in the United States and Europe about their nation
via the Bureau of Independent Press of Cuba (BPIC), a sort of clearinghouse that
was founded by the journalist Yndamiro Restano, who was recently released from prison.
Independent journalism, even for overseas audiences, remains a dangerous task. In
October, as President Fidel Castro wined and dined in New York City during the United
Nations' 50th anniversary celebrations, Olance Nogueras Roce, a 27-year-old reporter
working for BPIC, was detained four times, placed under house arrest and threatened
with a prison term for spreading news that allegedly undermined "international peace."
Nogueras' offense was writing a story that was widely distributed by BPIC on the
potential safety problems at Cuba's Juraguas nuclear plant. Nogueras was told to leave
the country or face persecution. He refused, and his colleagues fear that his case
will be used as a test by the government as it attempts to control them.
Still, Restano maintains that Castro has given independent journalism some room to
operate. "It is very small, but we must keep it open," he says. One thing that has
changed, despite the danger, is the building of an esprit de corps among the journalists. In recent months, in an effort to create a semblance of a free press, they have formed
or revitalized small, loosely organized journalists' groups with names like Havana
Press and Cuba Press. And throughout the Nogueras episode, for example, Rafael Solano, who runs Havana Press, continued filing stories through BPIC about Nogueras' situation.
(Solano had been at the pinnacle of Cuban journalism, writing news for Cuba's most
important radio station, when he was fired in early 1995.)
Restano's release from prison in June 1995 was the catalyst for the new solidarity
among independent Cuban journalists. Back in 1985, Restano had challenged the concept
of state-controlled media and was banished from official journalism, forcing him
to work menial jobs. He went on to found Cuba's first nonofficial journalism organization
in 1987. He later founded a human rights movement seeking peaceful political change
and was sentenced to prison for distributing information about it. A campaign by
the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom organizations and the direct
intercession of Danielle Mitterrand, wife of France's former president, led to his
release. Afterwards, Restano traveled in Europe and Latin America and found there
was great interest in the little-known world of dissident Cuban journalists. At the annual
meeting of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) on Oct. 15, leading Latin
American and U.S. publishers accepted the journalists' application for membership.
Several IAPA members have since published articles by the dissidents. "We believe that
our support for their cause at this moment is elementary for their future survival,"
says David Lawrence, Jr., publisher of the Miami Herald
and the new president of IAPA.
Restano and his colleagues hope that eventually they will be able to launch an independent
radio station or newspaper inside
Cuba. "That's the goal that keeps us going," he says. Cubans in general have lost
respect for state news, but the alternatives are generally not politically independent
either. Most of the population listen to Miami radio stations, which are often owned
or operated by hard-line Cuban exiles. Even the U.S. government-sponsored Radio Martí
has as its chairman Jorge Mas Canosa, the controversial Cuban exile who opposes any
opening to Cuba while Castro is in power.
Can an independent press project survive in Cuba? Restano and his colleagues believe
so. "It is the only way we can help change our system from an authoritarian government
to a democratic one, without violence," he says. "A free press could help keep the
good things the revolution brought to our society and get rid of the bad ones."
was the Americas program coordinator from December 1993 to December 1995. This special
report was originally published as an article in the
Columbia Journalism Review. It is reprinted with permission.
(c) 1996 Committee to Protect Journalsits. All rights reserved. The information in this document may be freely copied and distributed provided that it is properly attributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists.