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.
Encouraged by that legal victory, Correa has moved to further restrict press freedom. Last month, Ecuador’s national assembly approved a media law that seriously limits what journalists can cover about political candidates during elections. The broadly worded law states that the media “will refrain from direct or indirect promotion, either through reports, specials or any other form of messaging, which would indicate a preference for or against a particular candidate, political principle, opinion, preference, electoral or political platform.” As concerned journalists have rightly pointed out, this amounts to a form of preemptive government censorship of election coverage. But with Correa set to seek reelection in 2013, it’s clear why his government would wish to be the arbiter of acceptable election coverage. Indeed, Correa has already taken on that role, regularly launching into long diatribes against “ignorant” journalists and other media “liars” on national television.
Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has also used his office to inveigh against the press. Journalists who dare to question his government find themselves denounced by Ortega as “devils,” “children of Goebels,” and “enemies of the Nicaraguan people.” If there were any illusions that the former Sandinista revolutionary is a reformed democrat, his attacks on the press have thoroughly dispelled them. In addition to personally berating journalists and creating a climate of intimidation against the press, Ortega has tried to silence critical media with defamation suits. Shunning all interviews, he has preferred to have pro-government media read his personal prepared statements, yet another way of silencing the independent press.
These are not isolated incidents. Determined to rule unopposed, Latin America’s new generation of autocrats have trampled on the democratic process in their countries and rigged the judiciaries to keep themselves in power. The independent media, or what remains of it, represents their last visible opposition. If they succeed in eliminating it, freedom in their countries will surely follow.
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