Press Freedom: An Important Debate for the Entire Region

This is an article by guest contributor Caroline Stauffer and is published courtesy of Americas Quarterly Blog

Hundreds of print media directors and journalists gathered last week in Buenos Aires for an annual conference on press freedom in the Americas.

 Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez used the occasion for his government to organize another one of its counter gatherings. The parallel summit organized by the Venezuelan embassy was reportedly held to discuss “media monopolies and the unification of public opinion” in Latin America, with participants coming from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras. There is really nothing new or surprising about Chávez’ action. This is the president who, when the group met in Caracas last year, staged a “mock trial” in protest, charging the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA) with “media terrorism.”

The IAPA has routinely condemned Chávez’ treatment of independent media, and the 65th annual General Assembly that began November 6 was no exception. Conclusions drawn from five days of meetings included concern that he has exported an extreme ideology that “threatens press freedoms across the region.”

But Chávez was not the primary concern expressed at the IAPA General Assembly. The highest number of journalist deaths in the Americas in recent history—including attacks in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and El Salvador— was top on the list.

 The “dual summits” in Argentina do illuminate several new and important issues of press freedoms in the hemisphere. Mainstream media accounts in the United States tend to zone in on Chávez, and indeed antics like officially banning the television show Family Guy, shutting down 34 radio stations and pushing for a radical “media crimes” law should be covered. But governments from Brazil to Honduras are also debating media regulations that deserve attention.

In Ecuador, an IAPA delegation condemned a new communications law that is currently before Congress, claiming it would allow the government to control media content. President Rafael Correa says the bill is necessary to prevent “media excess and abuse.”

 U.N. Rapporteur for freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, from Guatemala, disagreed with IAPA’s assessment of Ecuador’s proposed communications law and praised Argentina’s new law. He said governments in Latin America are “shaking up an unjust structure” in the media.

In Argentina, the host country for the IAPA meeting, an Audio-Visual Communications Law backed by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was adopted on October 11. The law limits the number of broadcast licenses a single company can hold. Supporters say it will break up monopolies and allow for a diversity of news outlets, including indigenous and nonprofit media. But groups including the IAPA have criticized the law for giving the government a stronger role in determining which stations can broadcast. Just last week, Fernández de Kirchner signed a decree ordering newspapers and magazines to be sold exclusively at union-run stands. Editors fear the government will cater to friendly unions, preventing the distribution of newspapers that criticize the government.

 This year’s IAPA meeting also took place at a time of great journalistic transformation. While the Internet should facilitate freedom of expression and provide a peaceful outlet for debate, the temptation for government censorship seems to be growing in the region as more people go online.

When Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg recorded a video directly blaming his death on the government days before his murdered body was found last May, a small but active social media community kept the story going, resulting in near political crisis for President Álvaro Colom. Over the summer, Internet users in Guatemala were unable to access WordPress, the free host site used by many blogs writing about the situation.

Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez has brought stories from Cuba to an international audience. Yet on November 6, Sanchez was detained and beaten along with another Cuban blogger, and state security guards are thought to be responsible.

On the surface, the calls being heard throughout the hemisphere to break up media monopolies and include more voices should be welcomed. The opportunities made possible by increased Internet access should support this plurality of opinions.

But if old-school media monopolies are to be replaced by governments controlling what voices are heard, and those who commit acts of violence against journalists or bloggers are in any way allowed to operate with impunity, countries in the region must reconsider the future of their information and media landscapes.

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