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N.Y. panel weights threats to press freedom in Latin America
CubaNews / October 2013

By Larry Luxner

NEW YORK — Reporting the news has never been an easy job in Latin America, but these days, the journalism profession appears riskier than ever.

In Brazil alone, four reporters have been killed this year — three of them in reprisals for their work, said Carlos Lauria, senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“This has made Brazil one of the most dangerous countries in the region. While reporters are more vulnerable in rural areas where law enforcement is weak, those who work in larger urban centers are not immune either,” Lauria said.

“Criminal organizations have also silenced the press in Central America — perhaps nowhere as much as in Honduras. Rampant gang violence, the presence of powerful drug cartels from Mexico and the deep societal polarization that followed the 2009 ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya all have contributed to make the work of reporters there even more dangerous.”

Lauria made his remarks Oct. 23 in New York, following presentation of the 2013 Maria Moore Cabot Prizes — the world’s oldest international annual journalism award.

“It’s very tough to be a journalist in Latin America,” said John Friedman, director of the Cabot Prizes. “We’re trying to use the prize as a way to encourage more solidarity among journalists on the entire continent — both to protect themselves but also to raise the quality of journalism in Latin America.”

This year’s recipients include Mauri König, special reporter for Gazeta do Povo newspaper in Curitiba, Brazil; Alejandro Santos Rubino, director and editor-in-chief of Colombia’s Revista Semana; Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer at the New Yorker, and Donna DeCesare, a photographer and freelance writer who has worked extensively in Central America.

In addition, Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez accepted the citation originally awarded to her in 2009, due to Cuban government restrictions preventing her from traveling to the United States at that time.

“I don’t think we could have picked a better group of winners this year,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School. “They make us proud, especially as we mark the 75th anniversary [of the Cabot prizes].”

Anderson spoke at length during the Oct. 23 panel about recent changes in Cuba — in-cluding the ouster of longtime Granma editor Lázaro Barredo Medina, who was replaced by Pelayo Terry Cuervo.

“This country has not had any press freedom for a very long time. It’s all flowed down from Communist Party directives,” he said.

Yet despite “1998 speeds on the Internet and an hourly rate that would knock out an average Cuban’s weekly salary,” there’s definitely much more freedom to travel these days, particularly for dissidents like Sán-chez who have been allowed to fly to the United States and then return to Cuba,” he stated.

“It’s a cliché to repeat that Raúl is a pragmatist, but that seems to be the case,” according to Anderson. “I sense that we may see an opening in the press arena, at least to criticize more openly those aspects of public administration that the regime itself wants to reform. It’s an opening that wasn’t there before.”

Anderson added: “There’s obviously been a decision that keeping dissidents on the island is counterproductive. The big looming question for those who work in the virtual world is whether they can extend that [opening] to the actual world.”

DeCesare, who earned the award for her meticulous documentation of El Salvador’s notorious criminal gangs, said the fear of violence has “eroded the very fabric of society” throughout Central America.

“When you go as a reporter into the community, no one wants to talk to you because they’re terrified,” she said. “One thing photojournalism does is connect us emotionally, in ways which humanize the actors in the narratives we tell. It plays a role in getting people to think about what needs to be done next.”

König said crime and police reporters are particularly vulnerable to drug traffickers, and that in big cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, reporting on organized crime can be especially dangerous.

“In the border regions, where trafficking in sex and drugs is rife, journalists covering those topics are at risk, while in the Amazon region and central Brazil, the coverage of agrarian conflicts and illegal occupation of public lands can trigger reprisals,” he wrote.

Since 1991, he said, 25 reporters have been killed throughout Brazil. “These were journalists who were doing their work, informing society, not journalists on vacation,” he said.

Mexico, meanwhile, is the deadliest nation for journalists in the Americas, said Lauria.

“In the last six and a half years, more than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared. Media outlets have been bombed, websites have been hacked, and journalists have been forced to flee. But the most devastating consequence is this climate of fear and intimidation. Reporters work in a climate of terror, and this produces widespread censorship in newsrooms,” he said.

“Besides the threat of physical violence, the most pressing issue for media in Latin Amer-ica is an array of restrictive regulatory laws imposed by governments that have been popularly elected, showing disdain for the institutions of democracy, seeking to stifle dissent and control the flow of information,” he said.

The most glaring example of that, Lauria said, is Venezuela.

“In the last 14 years, Venezuela has used different laws and measures to progressively break down the private press, with a majority in the National Assembly and control over judicial authorities. Dozens of broadcasters have been closed, critical coverage censored and journalists threatened. Venezuela has served as a model for other leaders in the region who are trying to weaken the press — and no one has learned their lesson better than Ecuador.”

Lauria called Ecuador “one of the most repressive nations in the Western Hemisphere” when it comes to media freedom.

“They’ve just passed one of the most restrictive pieces of legislation in Latin America. The president himself and government officials have also filed a series of debilitating defamation lawsuits,” he said. “And in the past few years, Cuba has projected an image of opening up economically, but unfortunately the Castro government has not taken any important steps to promote free expression.”

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