Inter American Press Association: free speech under attack across hemisphere

Populist leaders in Latin America increasingly use legal and political means to silence critics in the media, Enrique Santos Calderón, president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), said Nov. 6. Tactics include revoking broadcast licenses, fostering hostility toward journalists, and giving a free hand to government supporters who have attacked broadcast stations, newsrooms and printing plants. “We are extremely concerned at the growing level in recent weeks of harassment and violence in various countries,” Calderón said at IAPA’s annual meeting in Buenos Aires. “Democratic systems require a free and unfettered press.”

In Argentina, editors are criticizing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s new decree ordering newspapers and magazines to be sold exclusively in union-run newsstands. Editors fear this will enable the government to prevent distribution of newspapers that do not follow the ruling party’s line by enlisting pro-government unions to shut them down.

“From now on the sale of newspapers will be the only commercial activity regulated by the state,” said Gregorio Badeni, a constitutional law expert in Buenos Aires. “It is obvious that they aim to curtail the free development of the newspaper business, because they’re putting conditions on the sale of their products.”

Fernández de Kirchner did not respond to an invitation to speak at IAPA’s meeting. As she signed her decree this past week, the head of Argentina’s powerful truckers union, Hugo Moyano, sent members to block distribution of Clarín, La Nación, Perfil and other newspapers, demanding that the papers’ drivers be represented by the union.

Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo denied that there was any government involvement in the tough union tactics employed by Moyano. “There are those who want to make it look like there’s a dark government hand trying to stop the democratic and popular media,” Randazzo told the Argentina News Agency. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

IAPA has also criticized Argentina’s new broadcast media law, which preserves two-thirds of the radio and TV spectrum for noncommercial stations and gives political appointees a powerful role in granting licenses and regulating content. Unless legal challenges to the laws succeed, Grupo Clarín, a frequent critic of the government and one of Latin America’s largest media companies, could be forced to sell many of its properties within a year. (AP, Nov. 7)

Members of IAPA, which includes 1,380 publications from throughout the Western Hemisphere, saw similar threats emerging across the region. “What we’re seeing happen from one country to the next is that they’re approving laws to silence the press,” said Gonzalo Marroquin, publisher of Guatemala’s Prensa Libre. He warned of similar efforts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia, “because governments that want to stay in power need to control the news media.”

While media accounts focused on the clientelistic behavior of populist regime, some attendees voiced concern about the use of terror and assassination against journalists—which is escalating in close US allies such as Mexico. Over the past six months, 16 journalists have been killed across the hemisphere—half of them in Mexico, said Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News and president of the IAPA’s freedom of expression committee. (AP, Nov. 8)

On the eve of the Buenos Aires meeting, IAPA issued a press release condemning the murder of journalist Bladimir Antuna García in Durango, Mexico—the 10th this year resulting from the wave of narco-violence across the country. Antuna García, 39, a reporter with the Durango newspaper El Tiempo, was abducted the morning of Nov. 2, and his body discovered 12 hours later with marks of torture. This was the second attack on journalists from El Tiempo and the third murder of a newsman in northern Mexico in six months, according to IAPA.

IAPA president Calderón, editor of the Bogotá daily El Tiempo, pledged that “the dangerous situation that our Mexican colleagues face obliges us to commit to work even harder to meet the challenge.” (IAPA, Nov. 3)

See our last post on attacks on the press in Mexico.

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