Despite Democracy, the Free Press Is Under Fire in Latin America


THE right to freedom of the press is still in jeopardy in Latin America and the Caribbean, despite the spread of democracy in the region, the Inter-American Press Association concluded in a recent meeting here."Only two countries ... are not democratic right now, but paradoxically, the new democracies and the old democracies are starting to find ways - not as brutal as the old dictatorships but more subtle and nonetheless equally offensive - to limit the freedom of the press," says Juan Emmanuel Santos, deputy publisher of El Tiempo, a top Colombian daily newspaper. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) is a group of North, Central, South American, and Caribbean newspaper editors and publishers that meets every six months to gauge press freedom and discuss new trends in the hemisphere. Drug traffickers are now one of the main threats to free speech in the region, Mr. Santos says. His own paper's pro-extradition stance on the Medellin cocaine trafficking cartel led to an anonymous phone call in 1989 threatening to "wipe me out," he says. Although many of the bosses of the Medellin cartel are now in prison, he says "other [drug cartels] are emerging and they are following the example of the Medellin cartel, harassing and threatening the press." In the last six months 11 journalists have been killed in Colombia. In addition, drug traffickers only recently released Santos's brother Francisco and a colleague, also of El Tiempo, from eight months of captivity. As drug routes expand to include Brazil and Argentina, IAPA members fear damage to news coverage. In Peru, however, the key problem is terrorism as journalists are drawn to the battles between the Shining Path guerrillas and other groups. Four journalists have died in such violence in the past six months, according to the association. "IAPA's fight against this type of violence ... can be compared to its battles against arbitrary political regimes," outgoing President Julio Cesar Ferreira de Mesquita told members Oct. 23. The September kidnapping of Christian Edwards del Rio, general manager of Chile's family-owned El Mercurio daily newspaper, illustrates the risks journalists run. "Today we understand more vividly than ever the struggles undertaken in other countries of our hemisphere like Colombia, Peru, and others where violence and terrorism have battered the media and entire populations," said Mr. Edwards's brother Felipe, also a Mercurio executive. Members of the Edwards family have heard nothing from kidnappers since they let it be known what had taken place and have no idea what their purpose might be. Some Chileans posit that it was carried out by supporters of Gen. Manuel Contreras, a former intelligence chief indicted in September for his alleged command role in the 1976 Washington D.C. car-bomb assassination of Orlando Letelier, a critic of the 1973-1990 military regime headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. IAPA has long fought free-speech and press-rights abuses by Latin American and Caribbean dictators. In this meeting, members said the recent military coup in Haiti has led to self-censorship by local newspapers, and to the shutdown or destruction of several radio stations. IAPA's report on Cuba, however, was one of the most severe. "The Cuban government has dramatically increased its persecution, vigilance, and repression of all attempts to communicate ideas and information that deviate from absolute loyalty to the state," it said. In the last six months, more than 30 Cuban and foreign journalists have been arrested, physically attacked, fired from their jobs, or expelled. The United States was also criticized by IAPA, not only for the Pentagon's limitations on the Gulf war press coverage, but also because "the US news media are still besieged by subpoenas." The IAPA report cites a study indicating that lawyers are increasingly trying to use the press to gather evidence for court cases. The report noted that US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney met last month with media representatives to develop different rules for military coverage. In the region as a whole, IAPA reports a series of new institutional attempts to curb journalists' reporting capabilities. The Dominican Republic and Chile, for example, are considering a journalism diploma requirement for reporters, which might effectively limit who can be a reporter to those receiving that state sanction. The new Colombian Constitution also ensures the "right to honor," its citizens, which El Tiempo's Santos says could be interpreted to protect politicians from press criticism.

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