05 April 2017

Conclusions of the IAPA Mid-Year Meeting in Guatemala

This time, 13 journalists lost their life since the meeting in Mexico, solely for devoting themselves to informing their communities.

A pattern of conduct, which begins with harassment of the press and ends up with the murder of journalists, becomes uncovered on reviewing the reports on freedom of expression in the various countries of the Americas that have been presented at this Midyear Meeting. The enemies of the free press begin by harassing journalists and news media, then the growing hostility turns into intimidations and threats, later to end up in violent attacks, hacking and prohibiting them to do their work and thus keep the citizens informed.

Most alarming are the murders of journalists, which continue month after month without decrease. This time, 13 journalists lost their life since the meeting in Mexico, solely for devoting themselves to informing their communities: 5 died in Mexico, 3 in Peru, 2 in Guatemala, 2 in the Dominican Republic and 1 in Honduras. As serious as this is in almost all the cases the perpetrators of the crimes are enjoying total impunity and with the passage of time the offense becomes subject to statute of limitations. In this period four murders that occurred in Colombia between 1996 and 1997 became subject to statute of limitations after 20 years amid the indifference and lack of action of the authorities; 76 cases have similarly become subject to the statute of limitations in the last few years.

Despite the brutality of the crimes this is not the only way of silencing the press. In some countries, such as Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela, it has been achieved to muzzle the news media and keep the people uninformed without there having been carried out the murder of journalists in these months. Nevertheless, what has been managed has been to suspend the publication of various media through economic asphyxiation making it difficult for them to obtain the necessary supplies.

Harassment of the press continues to grow and in the most diverse countries, such as the United States and Cuba, Bolivia, El Salvador, Ecuador and Venezuela, those in government unleash furious attacks on the press and journalists. In some cases they are accused of "political conspiracy," in others there is talk of an "exaggerated freedom of expression" and in so many others they are held responsible for creating "false news." In this climate there soon appear intimidations, threats and their inevitable effect, self-censorship.

In Venezuela there have been recorded 123 acts of intimidation of journalists. In Colombia there are 147 journalists with protection due to threats and in other countries, such as Guatemala, there has still been awaited for many yeas the putting into practice of a pending protection program. In Mexico self-censorship and news fronts being abandoned, despite their evident pubic interest, already appear to have been accepted as inevitable by the public and the media. Not only the authorities, local and national, are those that seek to intervene in editorial content of newspapers and media but also drug traffickers. In Costa Rica and Guatemala it has been advertisers that have sought to reward or punish media according to their coverage and points of view. But the interest in intervening in editorial content has also manifested itself in Ecuador and Panama.Causing special concern is the hostility that has been shown by the President of the United States, Donald Trump, towards his country's press. It is of concern to observe how in that country, in the cradle of free press, there is beginning to appear harassment, which tends to be the precursor of threats and violence.

In many countries the threats come to be translated into violence against the media and journalists. There have been recorded aggressions in Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela. In this latter country the aggressions have taken on the form of hackings, through hackers hired by the government to interfere in the editorial content of websites of newspapers and online media, and it has even got to the point of denying visas to foreign correspondents, CNN en Español has been shut down and nine newspapers have ceased publishing due to the lack of newsprint that is controlled by the state company that monopolizes its sale. There remains in prison Braulio Jattar for the sole fact of having aired a video of a protest against President Maduro.

In Cuba to the restrictions of always there has been added control of the Internet and intimidations of members of the family of those who work in providing news. These latter people have been subjected to prolonged periods of imprisonment, resorting to all kinds of subterfuge, such as the supposed sale of groceries independently or tax evasion, with threats of trial and jail. The regional vice chairman for Cuba of our Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Henry Constantín, was arrested in Camagüey for attempting to travel to cover the presentation of an award to the OAS Secretary General, being accused first of "enemy propaganda" and then of practicing journalism without being authorized, which prevented him from being at this meeting.

Digital trends reveal a certain degree of backward movement, due to the fact that in addition to cyber attacks and hacking such as in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela, the so-called right to forget is sought to be established in countries such as Chile, Colombia and Puerto Rico, which would seriously hamper the work of the press.

As regards access to public information there have been recorded setbacks in Canada, Honduras, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela. Progress in laws on transparency, which assured access of the press to keep the public informed, appears to be held up, which could affect the information that people receive.

Along with these regressions there have been noted some positive matters, such as the condemnation on the part of Costa Rica's Constitutional Court of the use of official advertising to reward or punish news media's editorial stances. This practice was described as "perverse censorship" and "a form of unlawful harassment."

At this meeting we were witnesses to the signing of the Declaration of Chapultepec by the President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, who reaffirmed his commitment to the principles that govern freedom of expression.