Claudio Paolillo


Presentation by the Chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, Búsqueda, Montevideo, Uruguay

April 9, 2016


Dear colleagues and friends,

It seems like an interminable litany. Since 2012 I am heading the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information and there has not been one sole opportunity in which I have not had to begin my twice-yearly reports informing you of the number of journalists murdered since the last membership meeting.

Today here, in Punta Cana, I comply with the awful duty of communicating to you that during the last six months 12 colleagues of ours were murdered in Latin America, extending the already too long list of victims of organized crime, of political corruption and of the complicity, through fear and omission, of governments incapable of halting this bloody epidemic that every week in addition to putting an end to lives and destroying entire families leaves the region with greater doses of censorship and self-censorship and our societies less informed about matters of interest to them.

Once again Mexico and Brazil top the macabre list, with four journalists murdered in each of those countries, in addition to Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela, with one death in each. As always impunity reigns so implacably.

I believe that the time has come to demand that crimes against journalists not become subject to statute of limitations. The moment has arrived to loudly insist that the murders of journalists be regarded as crimes against humanity.

What more can we do to halt this hemorrhage? What more can we do so that the governments cease haughtily promising us that the police, public prosecutors and judges will do their work speedily and rigorously, that there will be taken seriously the battle against impunity and that they will do what they have the obligation to do to bring criminals to justice? What else? After so many promises not kept, such vacuous speeches and such regrettable results, will it be that we will have to begin to denounce the states where these vile murders take place as accomplices of the delinquents?

Journalists face numerous risks in their professional work, as happens in El Salvador to the colleagues that cover the news in communities where there is the presence of gangs, or as occurs in Honduras, where attacks on journalists and the lack of punishment for the crimes continue to give rise to self-censorship.

In Mexico in particular, where from 1987 to date there has been the murder of 128 journalists, the absence of protection and of effective responses by the government have been a constant in the majority of acts of violence against the press. We are very concerned, in addition, at the tendency of acts of violence against female journalists to increase – in 2015 alone there were 84 such cases.

But also in Peru and here in the Dominican Republic there have persisted attacks on, threats to and intimidation of journalists, with greater risks for those who work outside the capital cities.

Dear friends, you all know that the United States has renewed its diplomatic relations with Cuba; we have all seen President Barack Obama speaking amicably in Havana with dictator Raúl Castro. But, unfortunately, that reconciliation has not so far prevented the Cuban government from continuing to apply mechanisms of repression that led in March to 1,200 arrests, 319 of which were made precisely during President Obama's visit to the island. It has to be said also that in contrast to the previous one the government of the Castro brothers has softened treatment of the international press following the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana.

It is a positive sign, although Cubans, those who suffer the tyranny every day of their lives, continue in the mid 21st century unable to print any more than one miserable page of paper with some information or opinion critical of the regime.

In Haiti there continues to be noted an atmosphere of harassment of and threats to journalists and there continue to go unpunished cases of the murder of journalists.

And despite the fact that political advances have been noted in the region the climate for press freedom continues with an unstable panorama.

The government of President Mauricio Macri in Argentina changed the darker panorama of Kirchnerism and left to one side the policy of aggression against critical media and journalists, and also abolished the practice of subsidizing "friendly" media and journalists with official advertising. In general the new Argentine government has shown a more open and pluralistic policy toward the press.

In Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro lost the congressional elections in December, but that has not prevented his government from continuing to use the legal apparatus that it fully controls to harass, persecute and silence critical or independent journalists.

In fact, in the last six months three newspapers ceased publishing in Venezuela and 80 more are looking at taking the same step given the restrictions in the provision of newsprint imposed by the government through the state monopoly Corporación Alfredo Maneiro.

Mr. Maduro's government neither wishes to comply with a ruling of the Inter-American Human Rights Court that ordered it to restore the signal and equipment seized with military aid from Radio Caracas Televisión.

Along the same lines President Evo Morales lost a referendum to be re-elected in Bolivia and remain in power almost indefinitely. But his supporters are proposing a regulation of social media because, they argue, they are waging a "dirty war" allegedly operated by opposition politicians and from abroad.

Also in Bolivia the government is putting obstacles to the renewal of licenses of hundreds of broadcast stations on the basis of a new Communications Law that leaves in private hands only 33% of the spectrum. There is a well-founded suspicion that the Morales government is applying a policy of reprisals against those, for better or worse, maintain independent editorial stances or criticisms.

But on the legislative front the biggest problem, without a doubt, is in Ecuador. There, President Rafael Correa decided not to take part in the elections scheduled for February 2017, but that did not weaken the actions against the press. Correa warned that he will also wage battle against his critics on social media, particularly on Twitter.

During the last six months Ecuador's Office of Superintendant of Information and Communication (Supercom) and the Communication Council (Cordicom), exclusively controlled by the Executive Branch, took 78 disciplinary actions, among fines, rectifications, obligatory responses, written reprimands and other sanctions against radio stations (35 cases), television channels (24) and press (18). Needless to say there continue constant threats and insults against journalists.

In Nicaragua there persists governmental censorship and official advertising only arrives – in abundance – at official media or media "neutralized" to behave in an independent manner. The system is employed with malevolent intelligence so that disloyal competition brings out financial difficulties for the very few media outlets that still raise the banner of a free press.

Accessing public information continues to be an odyssey in most of Latin America and the Caribbean.

On an encouraging note it is right to say that in Argentina the government has presented a bill for a Law on Access to Public Information that covers the three branches of government.

However, in Barbados tension between the government and the press is preventing the updating of access laws and slowing down amendments concerning the offense of "defamation."

At the same time in Costa Rica the government submitted a bill on access to public information but which, paradoxically, if finally passed could become an obstacle to the normal practice of access to such information that is currently the immediate prerogative on the part of judges.

In Honduras, on the pretext of guaranteeing national security, the government, Police and Attorney General's Office are limiting access to public information. In Nicaragua the government is disobeying the Access Law and is dedicated to making propaganda. And regarding the press in Puerto Rico it has been complained that the government provides fragmented information and access to official information is facing greater obstacles within the framework of a deepening of the country's fiscal, financial and social crisis.

Also in the United States journalists are facing difficulties in getting the government to provide public information. The Virginia state legislature is debating two initiatives that would restrict journalists' access to information about public officials.

Paraguay, on the other hand, marked an important advance following the enactment of a law on access to pubic information in 2014 according to which from March onwards all state institutions are required to publish on a Web site information about salaries, official trips, contracts and other data not defined as secret.

The legal and judicial problems do not end there.

For example, in Brazil a right of reply law passed in 2015 has received strong questioning by media and journalists. And in Canada an anti-terrorist law gives too much leeway to government agencies to share information about citizens.

The new technologies are opening up a world of opportunities but also incorporate new problems for press freedom.

In Chile a group of legislators presented a bill to establish the "right of digital oblivion," motivated by a Supreme Court ruling that required a media outlet to erase a news item that it had published. Orwell called such a thing "the holes of the memory." Also in Chile there is at the point of becoming law a regulation requiring media not to discriminate in the fees they charge candidates in an election and which requires them to report their charges to the electoral service.

Colombia is another country where the so-called "right to oblivion" is enjoying good health. That country's Supreme Court opened a dangerous window on this issue with a ruling according to which media, on their own, will be required to update information of the legal situation of a person whenever he or she changes his or her status.

In the United States there arose a novel controversy over court orders to facilitate access to encrypted messages on smart phones and the dispute between two constitutional rights – that which the government defended on national security and the position of Apple and other companies to guarantee its customers' right to privacy.

Let us also speak about Panama, although I promise you it will not be about the "Panama Papers." A court ruling adverse to the newspapers La Prensa and Panamá América set a negative precedent for press freedom and discourages investigative reporting on matters of pubic interest. In addition, while the questionable draft bill for a press law that we criticized so much at past membership meetings was withdrawn from the National Assembly, of concern is the discussion of another one on electoral reforms that would affect freedom of the press and of commerce.

The Dominican Republic luckily is welcoming us with a piece of good news: the Constitutional Court partially eliminated the criminalization of defamation under the Law on Expression and Thought, although it continues to be in the Penal Code. It is a good advance, but it remains to be completed.

And while La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy were the victims of several cyber attacks in El Salvador, regarding which it is presumed that there was the participation of public officials, allow me to end with my country, the habitually calm and tolerant Uruguay.

During the last six months President Tabaré Vázquez copied Chavist and Kirchnerist techniques accusing the independent or critical press of having become an "opposition party." Vice President Raúl Sendic railed against what he called "junk press" after the newspaper El Observador discovered that he had lied about his academic career in having presented himself for 30 years as "graduate in Human Genetics" when he is not a graduate in anything, and the governing Frente Amplio party resorted to the embarrassing technique of considering that information which the government did not like is part of a plot to "destabilize the democratic institutions."

Uruguay, it is worth remembering, is first in the Americas in almost all the indices that reveal the state of press freedom in the countries.

But as you have just heard, no one is safe – not even peaceful Uruguay – from one day those in government failing into what Jean François Revel called "the totalitarian temptation."