Press Freedom Under Attack in Latin America

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Journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders recently made headlines when it demoted the United States in its annual rankings of press freedom for an alleged “crackdown” on reporters covering Occupy Wall Street. Not only was that downgrade deeply tendentious, but it served to obscure a far graver threat to press freedom: the ongoing assault on independent media in Latin America.

The rise of populist left-wing leaders in Latin America has been an unmitigated disaster for the independent press. For all their appeals to democracy, strongman leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega have been unwilling to submit to democratic scrutiny from the media. Intolerant of dissent, they have launched crackdowns on journalists and media owners with the ultimate goal of curtailing the influence and independence of the press and eliminating one of the few remaining challenges to their power. To a troubling extent, they have succeeded.

Hugo Chavez has long been on the frontlines of the war against the media. Since becoming president in 1999, Chavez has worked to build up a loyalist media empire that would drown out independent and critical media – or, in Chavez’s neo-Marxist parlance, free him from the “media dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” In 2005, for instance, he set up TELESUR, a state-run network that functions as his personal propaganda outlet. If there is to be a media dictatorship in Venezuela, Chavez clearly intends to run it himself.

At the same time, Chavez has tried to crush the country’s independent media. Government regulations have forced the closure of radio and cable television stations critical of his government, while independent media outlets have been forced to shut down after the government denied their broadcasting licenses. Such has been the fate of Venezuela’s oldest private channel, Radio Caracas Television. RCTV was forced off the air in 2007, after the government refused to renew its license because it did not toe Chavez’s party line. That left just one independent channel in Venezuela, Globovision, a problem the government solved in December 2010 by becoming a minority shareholder in the company and forcing a Chavez crony onto Globovision’s board of directors. In this hostile environment, journalists and media directors understandably have chosen self-censorship rather than risk losing their job by angering the Chavez government.

Chavez isn’t alone in seeing independent media as a threat to his regime. In Ecuador, the leftist President Rafael Correa has taken his Venezuelan ally’s strategy of media intimidation and politically driven censorship even further. Given that Correa hails from academia, where he was a professor of economics, there was early hope that he would take a more lenient view of press independence. Instead, in what the Washington Post has called “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere,” Correa has tried to deploy Ecuador’s laws and the judiciary to bring the media to heel and to silence his critics, all while subjecting journalists to legal and personal harassment.

One recent example of these tactics is Correa’s campaign against the Ecuadoran newspaper El Universo. The campaign traces its origins to September 2010, when Correa tried to enter a police station in the capital of Quito to calm police officers angry about a new government law limiting bonus pay and extending the time required for promotions. When the angry police officers rioted, Correa sought safety in a police hospital and ultimately had to call in the military to come to his aid. Shots were fired in the ensuing rescue. The incident prompted a column from El Universo editorial page editor Emilio Palacio, in which he called Correa a “dictator” and implied that Correa had ordered the military to fire on the hospital, putting civilians’ lives at risk. Outraged, Correa denied the charges and claimed that the column was defamatory. Spurning the paper’s offer to publish a statement in response, Correa instead filed suit against Palacio and the paper’s owners, citing “aggravated defamation of a public official.” In July of 2011, Palacio and the owners were sentenced to three years in jail while the paper was hit with $40 million in fines. Suspiciously, five different judges presided over the case. The defense also presented evidence that the harsh verdict, issued in just 24 hours by yet another surrogate judge, was ghostwritten by Correa’s personal lawyer. Whatever the truth, critics have pointed out that the Ecuador’s strict libel laws will inevitably lead to more media self-censorship.

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  • Jorge

    I am from Ecuador and I am appalled at the amount of propaganda and hatred in this article. There is an unleashed disregard to portray the entire truth. I truly feel sorry for the readers that become misinformed and can take stances based on incomplete infor-mation.

    I will not stand up in defence of other states than of Ecuador (although I would like to) because I know most about my own country.

    When you affirm that "Correa [and other presidents]… have been unwilling to submit to the democratic scrutiny of the media." it really shows your level of astounding ig-norance of the latin-american and Ecuadorian political struggles and our history. I don't know how it works in the United States (where I guess you are from), but in Ec-uador the media is far from democratic. Only wealthy power groups hold in their power mass media. Far until 4 years ago more than 60% of national media was owned by the same groups that own banks. Please explain to me how you think that this case is democratic. I beg of you.

    • mrbean

      Spare me about your country's politicians and their "Esquadroes le Morte" so they can loot the private sectorand the wealthy for protection money, As for Chavez, he should do us all a favor a die – hopefully in great agony without morphine.

      • Luis

        The reality that you have in your mind is only yours.

  • Jorge

    On the other hand, we did vote in 2011 (this is democracy that you where looking for) in a referendum of 10 questions. Once of the questions asked if we want a Media Law that regulates abuses of the press. The overwhelming answer was yes with more than 62%. Would you agree that this is democratic?

    The so called "crackdowns" against the media are private lawsuits placed against spe-cific media outlets accused of libel. Public servants have been accused of several dif-ferent crimes, including the President that has been accused of "Crimes against hu-manity". I do not support this president, but I would not in my Almodovar dreams ac-cuse him of something so terrible. The journalist was asked to prove this in a court and instead fled to Miami (with hand in the air screaming freedom of speech) where he is now seeking asylum.

    • Oleg

      Well as Stalin once said "it doesn't matter how people vote it's who does the counting", elections and referendums can be rigged, in fact in the former Soviet Union they used to have elections all the time, but with only one party and one name on the ballot. Likewise with Iraq, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Ill winning re-election with 98-100% of the vote.

      • Jorge

        With that logic then lets take down all governments. Even the one in your country. Your arguments are riddled with an overwhelming lack of consistency. Come visit our beautiful country, you will get a feeling of the reality.

        PS: but when you come, do learn spanish. if you only speak english you will find that the lower classes will not be able to communicate with you. and then your information will be biased.

  • Jorge

    Somehow your article is a little bit incomplete when you miss to include this small part in your text "Emilio Palacio, in which he called Correa a “dictator” and implied that Correa had ordered the military to fire on the hospital, putting civilians’ lives at risk."

    Also when you say that "Suspiciously, five different judges presided over the case". You fail to mention that the defendants of El Universo where the ones who Recused (literal translation, pardon my legal ignorance) each of these judges basically saying that they where not fit to handle this case. I find it a bit suspicious that you completely missed this information.

    I can understand that most authors that choose to write about Ecuador do not speak Spanish or even know where Ecuador is. But I find it irresponsible that you publish half-truths without flinching even.

  • Steve Chavez

    Since Occupy started the Santa Fe New Mexican and the University of New Mexico Daily Lobo had multiple reports per issue. The Albuquerque Journal had an article when something important was news worthy. The SFNM and DL printed on every act but then dismissed the truth when it became against their mission. There was a death in Albuquerque and the camp was taken over by the homeless and many drunks who camped there for free food.

    The SFNM writes articles on "immigrants" but will remove any comment, or ban comments altogether, if anyone writes "illegals." "Drivers Licenses are being issued to illegals with most giving false ID and documents to attain them." That sentence would be removed. They are "Undocumented immigrants." But a long time poster wrote "Whoever becomes Senator I pray they will work for the destruction of the murderous pig state of Israel." This comment stayed even after numerous complaints but "illegal" is banned?

    This from Henry Lopez of the SFNM:

    "Henry M. Lopez Digital Dev Mgr  3 hours ago in reply to Steven Chavez

    No, nothing was removed and it wasn't due to anything that anyone wrote. The item was mis-tagged in the content-management system. It's not re-tagged and appearing.

    Please, feel free to write a letter to the editor at, which is exactly what we're encouraging folks to do. 

    That's correct, on immigration stories, we're lot leaving those open for instant comments because the tone and tenor of those discussions have just fallen through the floor in recent months and not providing a productive conversation anymore."


  • Ghostwriter

    Well,Jorge. Although we have a First Amendment in this country that basically says that we have a free press,there are many here who feel that the American press haven't been as tough on President Obama as they would have like. There are a number of media outlets that are critical of the President but mostly a lot of them support him.
    It sounds to me as though President Correa is too thin-skinned and doesn't take criticism well. He and those like him (I include Hugo Chavez among them) don't want criticism. They want their press to be lapdogs for them. It sounds like your a supporter of President Correa. Sounds like he doesn't like freedom of the press too much.

    • Jorge

      Dear Ghostwriter,
      I invite you to visit all the major newspaper outlets of Ecuador. I dare you not to find a criticism of the president on the front page of each periodical. Have a look for yourself.

      You people in the US are in the blind, I don't really blame you, but please open your eyes.

      Correa is not striking back on "critisism". He has been falsly accused of a crime, and that in this country is a crime. Like I mention, in this article Jacob somehow fails to say the most important line of what Palacio's sentence is about. He has accused Correa of commiting crimes against humanity. This is not an opinion. Why don't you take Google Translate and go to the source.

      I don't want to defend Correa, I just want you to see both sides of the coin.

      And let me just remind you that in Ecuador we do have freedom of speech. You can say whatever you want. But in this country, each citizen has also the resonsibility of what he/she says.

  • Luke Weyland

    US is trying Bradley Manning for the crime of revealing a US helicopter assault on unarmed civilians.
    US has convicted 5 Cubans for the crime of revealing a planned attack on Cuba.
    US locks up more people then any other nation – both per total incarerated and per capita
    Ortega, Chavez and Correa are not military strongmen they are democratically elected presidents. military strongmen like the Yemeni President and the former Egyptian President tend to be US allies.

    • Ghostwriter

      And Ortega,Chavez and Correa have this nasty habit of locking people up who criticize them. Come on! Who are you trying to fool?

      • Jorge

        Its easy to repeat that rhetoric. Tell the name one person who has been locked up for criticism. I dare you to.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    Drug production and export from South America into Mexico for distribution into
    the United States is the biggest money making problem for all concerned. On top
    of the drug problem Islamists are infesting the drug movement and colonizing in
    all of South America. In short whoever rules will do it under the cloud of drugs and
    Islamists who are recruiting followers into a new cartel that will blow all the others
    away and bring devistation in the end if America decides it has had enough from
    South of the border. The press in South America has become meaningless…….

  • luke Weyland

    Press freedom is thriving in latin America.
    It is threatened by the USA that holds people, like brave, Bradley Manning in solitary confinement for the 'crime' of revealing the genocide perpetrated by US and allied forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.