Press freedom falls in Latin America, French journalist missing in Colombia

Freedom of the press is under threat in much of the Americas, according to a Freedom House report.

Woow/France 24/AP
This undated photo provided by France 24 television shows Romeo Langlois, the French journalist who was apparently kidnapped by FARC rebels in Colombia over the weekend while embedded with the Colombian military.

Colombia and the European Union are appealing for the release of French journalist Romeo Langlois, who was apparently kidnapped by FARC rebels in Colombia over the weekend while embedded with the Colombian military.

The troops, who were dispatched to eradicate cocaine fields, came under attack on April 28. Mr. Langlois, who was filming a documentary on drug trafficking, took off his bullet proof vest and helmet, according to press accounts, and identified himself as a civilian. He went missing after the skirmish, however, and a woman claiming to be a member of FARC said he is being held as a “prisoner of war.”

Colombia's environment for journalists has improved greatly in the past decade. The country has cracked down on guerrilla violence and dramatically reduced kidnappings, including those of journalists. But as the world marks World Press Freedom day today, the overall decline in press freedom in the rest of Latin America is evident, according to the 2012 Freedom House survey on the world's press freedom rankings.

In fact, Summer Harlow at the Knight Center, who helped produce the 2012 Freedom House survey for the Americas, writes, “While the rest of the world saw no real decline in press freedom – and even improved in the Arab world – in the Americas, press freedom deteriorated in 2011.”

The survey ranks countries as "free," "partly free," and "not free." Overall the region is considered relatively free, with 39 percent of residents living in “free” countries and 44 percent in “partly free” nations.

But two countries, Chile and Guyana, saw declines in their ranking for 2011, downgraded to “partly free.” Ecuador has seen a big slide in the past years under President Rafael Correa, who has sued journalists and media outlets and drawn rebuke from around the globe. In one high-profile case that we wrote about here, Carlos Lauria, Americas director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told The Monitor: “Since Correa took office five years ago, the situation has seriously deteriorated in Ecuador.”

Venezuela and Cuba remained at the bottom half of the list (and in the case of Cuba at rock bottom, as it is considered one of the “eight worst” in the world, along with Belarus, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). 

And these two countries, along with Mexico and Honduras, remained the only four in the Americas that are “not free” – the latter two due to the murders of journalists and the impunity surrounding their cases.

The report sums up the Americas: “Chile’s decline to Partly Free and major setbacks in Ecuador are the latest in a series of negative developments in Latin America over the past decade. Whether due to violence by criminal groups, as in Mexico and Honduras, or government hostility to media criticism, as in Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia, media freedom is under threat in much of the region.”

The US is considered one of the world's freer presses, but it saw a slight dip in 2011 over harassment surrounding the Occupy movement. And good news comes from the Middle East. The report opens with these words: “The year 2011 featured precarious but potentially far-reaching gains for media freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. Major steps forward were recorded in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, where longtime dictators were removed after successful popular uprisings.”

In terms of security, Mexico continues to be one of the world's most dangerous locations for working journalists. Just a week ago, Mexican reporter Regina Martinez Perez was found beaten, strangled, and left for dead in her home in Veracruz, which saw a huge spike in drug-fueled violence in 2011, as we reported here.

Freedom House says she is one of 76 journalists killed in Mexico since 2000.

This is the kind of environment that Colombian journalists once faced. But as security has improved, journalists have been increasingly shielded. And the FARC, in a landmark move in February, said it would stop kidnappings of civilians for ransom.

Now the world is wondering whether the apparent abduction of Ms. Langlois is a backtrack from that pledge.

One blogger, Hannah Stone at Insight Crime, says that it is not a reversal, as so far the group has not asked for ransom, but that the situation could mean that peace talks with Colombia's government might now be further out of reach:

Following the announcement, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon accused the rebels of failing to keep to their promise of ending kidnapping. In February, the group released a statement (no longer available on their website) saying that they would end the practice of kidnapping for ransom, as well as freeing their 10 remaining military and police hostages:

'Much has been said about the retention of people, men or women of the civilian population, for financial ends for the FARC to sustain our fight. With the same will expressed before, we announce that from this date we forbid this practice in our revolutionary conduct.'

Holding Langlois prisoner, then, would not seem to contradict this statement, as the rebels apparently have not demanded a ransom for his release. As InSight Crime pointed out in February, the motivation behind the promise to cease kidnapping civilians for ransom could simply be that this is no longer a big earner for the rebels. They may have decided that kidnapping Colombians and demanding money from their families was not worth the loss in political capital. Holding a French journalist prisoner in order to get international attention and show their power is a different proposition, and may still be attractive for the group.

However, continuing to hold Langlois does clash with the spirit of the February statement, and suggests that peace talks may not be an immediate prospect. The Colombian government has repeatedly said that ending kidnapping is a prerequisite for talks. Many onlookers have pointed out that Langlois cannot be considered a prisoner of war, as he was not armed, and clearly identified himself as a journalist rather than a combatant.

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