Remarks by Rafael Molina Morillo,
Chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, IAPA Midyear Meeting Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic March 17, 2002 Since our evaluation of the state of press freedom in the hemisphere in Washington last October, there have been more steps backward than forward toward our organization's goals. Violence against journalists and the media has been the principal, if not the only, cause of insecurity in Latin America. It has been aggravated by the deficiencies we observe in the administration and application of justice and in legal initiatives intended to censor journalism. It has been proved that when there is no firm political will, rigorous police investigation and rapid legal action to find the h those responsible for the violence, it emboldens violent behavior against journalists and the media and stimulates self-censorship, which is the worst that can happen to the profession of informing society. During this period we have been informed of four murders in Colombia, Haiti and Mexico; violent incidents inspired by the government against the press in Venezuela; attacks against television in Colombia, and continuing attacks against journalists in Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala and Peru, to name some countries. I can attest that since our last meeting, there has been no change in the fact that murder, terrorism, kidnapping, pressure, intimidation, unfair imprisonment of journalists and impunity for the attackers all seriously restrict press freedom. Cuba is still the case that symbolizes the denial of all freedoms and especially freedom of thought. The campaign of harassment and continuous surveillance against free expression has increased in recent months, supported by the Law of Reaffirmation of National Dignity and Sovereignty, while some independent journalists remain in prison and some foreign correspondents were attacked. We will continue to support the island's independent journalists, believing that the freedom to express opinions, receive and distribute information is the only was to bring democracy to that country. In this vein, IAPA continues to disseminate writings by independent Cuban journalists on its Internet page. The picture in Haiti is one of the most dramatic in the hemisphere. Although President Aristide says repeatedly that he respects press freedom, journalists are treated badly and threatened by police officers and government officials, not to mention murders, such as those of radio journalist Brignol Lindor, and Jean Leopoldo Dominique and Gerard Denoze, which are still unsolved. Colombia seems to be fated to present, year after year, a tragic scene for journalism even though this is not caused by government actions but by drug traffickers and guerrillas. But this is aggravated by the authorities' weakness despite efforts they make to find and punish those who are guilty of the repeated crimes and threats against journalists, many of whom have chosen to go into exile. The crimes affect not just journalists who cover the armed conflict, but those covering other beats. In Colombia, Mexico and Brazil we are concerned even more about the systems' inability to solve dozens of unpunished crimes against journalists, especially the failure to protect journalists and media outlets working in border areas and outside the cities where they are more easily stalked by illicit groups linked to drug trafficking, guerrillas and organized crime. A source of great concern is Venezuela where President Chávez shows a pronounced obsession against the media and journalists, to the extreme that he does not miss an opportunity to discredit them verbally and incite the people against them. One of the goals of a visit by a high-level IAPA delegation to Venezuela at the end of February was to gather information about press freedom there. At a Chapultepec forum in Caracas during the visit, after analyzing the situation there and the laws and regulations concerning the practice of journalism, it was decided that Venezuela does not comply with any of the 10 fundamental principles that we require for press freedom. The former chief justice of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Cecilia Sosa, describes succinctly and accurately what is happening there: "We are not free," she says, "We are trapped and cornered. Whoever criticizes the revolutionary program is held up to public ridicule." The person most responsible for the lack of press freedom in Venezuela is none other than President Hugo Chávez, who does not hide his aversion to the press at any time. But the problem is not just braggadocio or clichés about what he called "the poisoned press." Chávez's inflammatory rhetoric becomes action when frenzied mobs incited by the president demonstrate outside newspapers, throw firecrackers at them, and attack reporters in the streets to the point that a good number of journalists have chosen to wear flak jackets and gas masks or to hide their press passes to avoid being insulted or attacked. The independent press in Venezuela continues bravely to do its work in the midst of greater and greater intimidation as it awaits an expected Content Law that has not yet been described publicly. It is feared that it will have new restrictions on the media and journalists. In this kind of environment we cannot say the press is free in that country. In addition to attacks against media outlets and journalists, there is concern about the proliferation of new legislation to regulate the press which only shackles journalistic work such as the Content Law in Venezuela. There are many examples of the advance of such laws in the hemisphere. In Costa Rica, the courts have a marked inclination to take positions harmful to free expression. This leads journalists to be very cautious, to the point where many confess that they censor themselves because they are afraid of being convicted in the courts for exercising their right to express themselves freely. It reached the point where a court ordered a private television channel to broadcast an election debate with all the presidential candidates. This was a way to intervene and regulate the media with the excuse of "information equality." The shadow of a law recently enacted against press freedom darkens the picture in Bolivia. The political advertising law establishes strict limits on the media's economic freedom by setting time periods for advertising and even the prices that may be charged. Along the same lines of intervention in private media outlets' editorial policies, Ecuador is about to approve a Children's and Teenagers' Code that would require the written media to provide free space for social development and public information dumped on them by the state. While in Brazil there was a court decision overturning the requirement of obligatory licensing and university education for journalists, we are concerned that the idea of obligatory licensing and degrees has been introduced in new laws in Guatemala and Nicaragua. The trend also exists in the form of a bill introduced in Ecuador. This trend appears to be contrary to guidelines of the Inter-American Human Rights Court that brought the end of obligatory licensing in several countries such as Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. In the area of legislation affecting the press we also should mention the good news from Panama where a Free Access to Public Information Law was enacted. Nevertheless we had to deal with initiatives similar to one in Paraguay where an access law was enacted and later revoked at IAPA's insistence because it imposed great restrictions on information provided by public officials. In the Dominican Republic, a bill is under consideration in Congress, which, among other things, would establish effective ways to gain access to public information. Also, in Bolivia, President Jorge Quiroga told us that the constitutional reforms in his country will include clauses to that effect, and there are similar bills in Peru. The lack of access to government information or manipulation of it is still a great obstacle for the right of the public to be informed. There are countless cases and countries. Access to public information frequently is denied in Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Canada, El Salvador, Honduras, Brazil, Haiti, to name a few countries. In the United States, measures were enacted to restrict government information, which calls into question the stability of the Freedom of Information Act which is held up as a model throughout the world. Also, because of the September 11 incidents and the war in Afghanistan, there are concerns about initiatives by the government and the Pentagon to put out false information in an international propaganda campaign about the war against terrorism attempting to use the press to disseminate disinformation. The press is also restricted in its work by provisions and arbitrary legal measures that include, in some cases, prison sentences for journalists, use of contempt charges against those who criticize public officials and also high fines and damage awards that threaten the very existence of the media, as regularly happens in Brazil and Paraguay. In some countries the judicial branch is not truly independent of politics. This gives rise to many censorship rulings against journalists to prevent them from criticizing or reporting corruption. For example, some Venezuelan editors are in exile to escape inevitable prison sentences, Peruvian journalists are denied permission to leave the country, publishers are jailed without the proper legal process and laughable lawsuits against journalists and media outlets are filed in Costa Rica, Argentina and Chile. We cannot conclude this report without pointing out that the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information has increased it participation in national forums organized by the Chapultepec Committee in various countries to promote the fundamental principles of press freedom. We consider that the best way to combat the dangers and threats to this sacred right of the people is to increase the awareness of the citizens of the Americas about the importance and the value for democracy of the right to inform and to be informed freely. We have attended forums in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Venezuela, all countries where we received a warm welcome and here we planted well-founded hopes. Our battle has been, and will continue to be, difficult and painful. But it is worth fighting. On our shoulders, ladies and gentlemen, weigh the great responsibility of preserving democracy. Our best weapon is freedom of expression and we will not allow it to perish.