Press censorship on the rise in Latin America
The beginning of 2012 finds much of Latin America suffering the worst wave of press censorship since the rightist military dictatorships of the 1970s, writes Miami Herald Latin American correspondent Andres Oppenheimer.
IT'S hard to believe that this would happen today in a largely democratic region, but the beginning of 2012 finds much of Latin America suffering the worst wave of press censorship since the rightist military dictatorships of the 1970s.
Like never before in recent history, elected presidents who already control their congresses and judicial systems are trying to silence independent media. If they succeed, as they seem to be doing, they will have a de facto license to steal — both money and elections — without any effective legislative or media scrutiny. Consider some of the latest attacks on independent media over the past few weeks:
• In Ecuador, where populist President Rafael Correa is waging an all-out war against journalists who denounce government corruption, publisher Jaime Mantilla of the daily Hoy was sentenced on Dec. 21 to three months in prison. Mantilla had published articles about possible influence peddling by the chairman of the board of Ecuador's Central Bank, who is a second cousin of the president.
A few months earlier, a writer and three executives of the daily El Universo had been sentenced to three years in prison and $40 million in fines for allegedly defaming the president. And Correa has filed charges against the authors of a book titled "El Gran Hermano" (The big brother) about government contracts worth more than $300 million obtained by his brother Fabricio Correa, who has publicly confirmed these business deals.
In May, Correa held a Mickey Mouse referendum that approved creation of a "regulatory council" to monitor television, radio and newspaper companies. Correa claims that Ecuador's public opinion has been "kidnapped" by "criminal" media corporations.
• In Argentina, the President Cristina Fernandez-controlled congress passed a law Dec. 22 declaring the country's newsprint production to be a matter of "public interest," in effect allowing the government to decide which newspapers and magazines will get newsprint, and at what price.
The law will regulate Papel Prensa, a public-private newsprint company whose majority stock is in the hands of Clarin and La Nacion, the country's two most prominent independent newspapers. Papel Prensa produces 75 percent of the country's newsprint. Almost simultaneously, a judge in the province of Mendoza ordered a police raid into the Clarin-run Cablevision cable TV company.
The latest measures come after the Fernandez government has silenced criticism in most media outlets through a combination of selective distribution of official advertising funds, takeovers by government cronies and tax investigations into those who don't toe the government line.
• In Panama and Nicaragua, presidents Ricardo Martinelli and Daniel Ortega are increasingly sending tax inspectors to the homes and offices of journalists that denounce government corruption. On Dec. 27, Panama's daily La Prensa founder Roberto Eisenmann denounced that a seven-month-long government audit into one of his businesses ended with a $1.5 million fine, which he described as open effort to stifle his reports about government corruption.
• In Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has already taken the independent RCTV network off the air and has silenced most critical media, weekly "6to Poder" editor Leocenis Garcia was recently jailed for publishing a photomontage depicting government officials as cabaret dancers.
• At the Washington-based 34-country Organization of American States, several countries led by Ecuador approved a proposal Dec. 13 that in effect could kill or severely weaken the OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Expression, which often denounces member countries' abuses against freedom of the press. The proposal is scheduled to be submitted to a vote on Jan. 25.
Commenting on these and other recent measures against independent media, the Inter-American Press Association said in a year-end statement that 2011 has been "one of the most challenging and tragic ones" for press freedoms in the region. Self-censorship is becoming an increasingly normal practice, it said.
Barring a strong international and domestic reaction, a growing number of Latin American countries will soon look like Venezuela. There, Chavez tolerates critical opinions in newspapers' editorial pages — which are read by very few and which the government can showcase as alleged evidence that it respects freedom of the press — but the government cracks down on newspapers that publish investigative reports about government corruption or other wrongdoings in their front pages.
I hope I'm wrong about this, but I'm afraid that journalists in growing numbers of countries will be allowed to opine, but they won't have much to opine about.Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.