Risky Business: Press Perils Mar Latin America Freedom

Democracy's rebirth in Latin America has done little for journalists like Gustavo Gorriti.

The investigative reporter was forced to flee Peru in 1992 because of his stories on rights abuses in the military's campaign against guerrillas. Now that he is based in Panama, his news-grabbing scoops - including reports on alleged drug-trade money flowing into President Ernesto Prez Balladares's campaign - have led officials to seek his expulsion by Aug. 29.

His plight shows how one element of democracy - a free press - falters when journalists are threatened. And in Latin America, such threats are still very real:

* Last month, in a border town in Sonora, a crusading Mexican editor was riddled with machine-gun fire as he entered the paper he founded. Benjamn Flores Gonzlez died, it seems, for his reports on Sonora's drug traffickers and the government and military protection they enjoy.

* In June, Colombian guerrillas informed the press that they will target as "military objectives" any journalists they consider favorable toward "militaristic" candidates in upcoming elections this year and next.

* In January, a young Argentine photographer for the Buenos Aires weekly Noticias was tied up and killed, his body and car then burned alongside an estuary. Jos Luis Cabezas's apparent crime: seeking to inform Noticias readers of police corruption.

With Mexico's monopoly-breaking elections last month, Latin America continues to celebrate its transition from military dictatorships to democracy. But even as the celebrating goes on, the region finds itself shaken by one of the darker down sides accompanying its transition: threats to press freedom.

Democracy's front line

On the front line of democracy's advance, the press finds itself in confrontation with forces threatened by the development of true pluralistic democracies, experts say. The press in Latin America is freer and more robust than a decade ago, they say, but the violence it faces is growing.

"The problem for the press in Mexico and throughout Latin America is an asymmetry in the growth of democratic institutions," says Sergio Aguayo, a Mexico City political analyst and human rights advocate. "In the vanguard are the press and human rights organizations. But they confront institutions that maintain an authoritarian mindset, or that are even deeply involved in illicit activities like drug trafficking," he says. An increasingly vocal press "is going to face heightened dangers in a time of transition like this."

Mexican writer Jorge Castaeda says killings of journalists "touch a terribly fragile fiber of Latin America's precarious democratic existence."

Since 1988, 173 journalists have been killed in Latin America, according to the Washington-based Interamerican Press Society. That's almost one-third of the 600 journalists that the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontires says have been killed worldwide in the last 10 years.

The high degree of impunity affecting journalist killings makes the situation worse. "Of those 600 killings, 95 percent were never punished, and most simply went uninvestigated," says Robert Mnard, secretary-general of Reporters sans Frontires. "With odds like that and with a probing press pushing to look into very powerful interests, why should the violence stop?"

Though motives often remain unclear in the absence of any real investigation by authorities, most journalist killings in Latin America appear to have one of two roots: investigating either official corruption or drug trafficking.

The Argentine case of photographer Cabezas is a test "for all Latin America," says Mr. Mnard, of whether high-level interests will succeed in maintaining their traditional impunity. Five people have been arrested for the murder, but who paid for the killing has not been revealed.

Arrests have also been made in Mexico's Flores Gonzlez case. But police believe the men they think ordered the killing - brothers of a drug lord who was targeted in the journalist's columns - are on the run.

Such unpunished cases stand as a threat to the region's democracy, says Mnard. "For Argentines, [it] was like going back 15 years" to the military dictatorship and its thousands of 'disappearances.' If the real criminals aren't found, it means they can continue to silence not just journalists, but whoever ... is threatening them."

Test case for freedom

Mexico's Flores Gonzlez could easily become another symbolic case for Latin America. The editor of La Prensa, a daily in San Luis Colorado, Sonora, the twentysomething publisher continued his in-depth investigations into drug-trafficking mafias and their connections to local and military authorities despite death threats. When he received payoff offers from drug traffickers' attorneys to lay off the investigations, he wrote about it in his column.

Local journalists say there is no doubt that Flores Gonzlez's killing had the intent of chilling other journalists' zeal. "Benjamn lived alone. They could have killed him at his home or in a contrived accident, but instead he was deliberately gunned down at the door to his newspaper, to make sure the connection was very clear," says Ramn Alfonso Sallard, a Sonora journalist.

Threats to journalists are especially serious in provincial regions, says Mr. Sallard, who recently founded an investigatory weekly, El Ciudadano, in Sonora's capital, Hermosillo. Local economic and political powers are often deeper rooted, he says, while democratic traditions are less ingrained.

"In Mexico City, it's a little easier to remain anonymous, but [in Sonora] you can't help running into the very people you write about when you go to a restaurant or walk in the street," he says.

Recognizing this, international organizations like Reporters sans Frontires plan to join Mexican rights groups and free-press advocates in creating a network to defend journalists facing judicial or bodily threats.

Reporters sans Frontires singled out Mexico in its recent annual report as one of 14 countries where conditions for the press worsened in 1996. This month it will release special report, commissioned by the European Union, which has just signed an agreement with Mexico calling for negotiation of a free-trade accord. Stepped-up scrutiny will at least hit home the fact that the world is watching.

The region's journalists are resolute that, in the long run, the intimidation they face will fail.

"Look at [San Luis Colorado's] La Prensa," says Sallard, "where the reporters have decided to go forward, follow Benjamn's example, and keep on doing their work. In the end," he adds, "the enemies will have acted in vain."

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