TWO years ago, when many Latin American nations began turning from authoritarianism to elected governments, supporters of democracy hoped for hemisphere-wide loosening of restrictions on freedom of the press, an important underpinning of a free society. But the expected relaxation has not occurred, despite small steps here and there and major improvement in Uruguay.
Widespread abuse of press freedom continues in authoritarian nations: Cuba, Haiti, Paraguay, to name three.
Nicaragua recently stiffened its censorship of nongovernment publications, like the opposition newspaper La Prensa.
In some nations, government indirectly restricts the press by withdrawing lucrative government ads from publications with whose views it disagrees.
The greatest concern centers on developments in Costa Rica and Panama.
The Costa Rican case involves the government's right to license journalists. Existence of a licensing requirement chills the freedom of inquiry that journalists require to function properly: By implication, a government has the power to withdraw a license if it disapproves of what a journalist writes or broadcasts.
The case involves a journalist from the United States who worked for a Costa Rican paper although he lacked a license; he was convicted by Costa Rican courts of practicing illegally and given a suspended sentence. The Inter-American Human Rights Court has held a hearing and is expected to rule later this month.
The court ruling is only advisory, but it may have broad ramifications. Nine other Latin American countries have similar restrictions, and in the third world the push to license journalists is growing. Press freedom is often irritating for a government, and the press does commit excesses. Yet the press is the people's representative, and its professional freedom is necessary for citizens to gain the knowledge to choose the best government -- and to retain personal freedom.
It is ironic that the issue should surface in Costa Rica, long Central America's democratic jewel, with a stable and effective government, a literacy rate above 90 percent, and no standing army.
By contrast, Panama's democracy is one primarily of appearance: Behind the scenes the country is controlled by the national guard. A campaign of intimidation has been launched against the independent press. La Prensa, an opposition Panamanian paper, is under threat of being closed, because it reported that a man who had charged the military chief with being a kingpin in illegal drug traffic was murdered under suspicious circumstances.
Despite this murder and some harassments, Panama has not gone down the seamy path of widespread crimes against innocent civilians by government-allied death squads, as Guatemala and El Salvador had. Panama need not make that mistake. Yet the trends in Panama are distressing: The government should take control of the nation and stop the slide toward increased rights violations.
A good first step is to end the harassment of the press and withdraw the threat of closure against Panama's La Prensa.
Maintenance of a free press, like freedom itself, requires constant diligence. All friends of democracy in Latin America should try to prevent press freedom from being rolled back in Costa Rica and Panama. And they should support increased freedom not only in the Western Hemisphere, but also the rest of the world.