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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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