Latin America's Free Press at Risk

Jul 28, 2011

By Douglas Farah

Two developments this week in Latin America underscore the precarious situation of the independent press, particularly in nations that are part of the Bolivarian alliance led by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez. Not since the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s have press freedoms and free speech been under such sustained attack, which I documented recently for the National Endowment for Democracy.

In a February 6 column titled “NO to Lies,” editorial writer Emilio Palacio at Ecuador’s El Universo alleged that President Correa had ordered the police to “fire at will” during a police rebellion last year, and also referred to the chief executive as a “dictator.”  A little over the top, you might ask?  Then consider this.  The president himself brought a slander suit, and publicly demanded that the judge rule in his favor.  With little deliberation, the judge did as told and handed down a three year jail sentence and fines totaling $40 million for the columnist and three directors of the newspaper.  Correa called the decision a “victory for true freedom of expression.”

This July, Bolivian police arrested a journalist for selling a compilation of on-the-record, video interviews with peasant leaders in the Chapare, a region where large amounts of coca are grown.  Growers in the video, titled “Union Dictatorship,” allege that President Evo Morales was a repressive union leader who often threatened to have opponents killed.  Rather than leave it to the president to answer these charges, the government felt obliged to silence the messenger.

Such incidents are the result of paranoid policies targeting independent media.  They ultimately lead to self-censorship, and a constant narrowing of the spectrum of officially tolerated speech, and even violence against private media outlets. As Freedom House, in its most recent report on press freedoms noted, no region of the world has suffered as significant a setback in press freedoms over the past five years as Latin America.

The governments of Ecuador and Nicaragua have withdrawn paid official advertising from commercial newspapers and raised taxes on newsprint which makes printing more expensive. The renewal of radio and TV licenses in these states as well as in Venezuela is also used to shutter media viewed as unfriendly to the government. In Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela all media outlets are now required to broadcast live any and all presidential statements if the president asks, no matter how long or frequent, even if such requests fall into the category of campaign publicity. Chávez, known for his long Castro-like speeches, has broadcast more than 3,700 hours of live speeches, the equivalent of some 156 days of airtime.

Ironically, none of the Bolivarian leaders would have been elected if the press had not been free to expose the corruption and incompetence of preceding administrations. Perhaps that is why so-called Bolivarian presidents focus on criminalizing such freedoms in their own governments. And as those freedoms disappear, so do the democracies that enabled their election in the first place.

Douglas Farah is an Adjunct Fellow with the CSIS Americas Program and a senior fellow at the Alexandria, Virginia-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.