Violence against journalists and media outlets, the proliferation of laws and legislative bills aimed at controlling the work of journalists, pressures exerted by the authorities, and a lack of access to government information are the main obstacles to freedom of expression in the Americas, according to the country reports presented at the 73rd General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A pattern of conduct involving attacks on the press—perpetrated by organized crime as well as by government figures and agencies—appears to have taken hold in 2017. This pattern of persecution and harassment takes the form of physical assaults that go so far as to include, in some cases, killings and attempted killings. Such attacks have been reported in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, and Venezuela. A journalist in Argentina was targeted in a clear attempt to kill him. In Mexico and Honduras, these crimes took the lives of 10 journalists. Seven killings have occurred in Mexico and three in Honduras since the IAPA's last meeting in April 2017. So far in 2017 there are already 18 journalists who have fallen victim to a crime.
Homicide is the ultimate and most brutal form of censorship. But the persecution of media professionals does not end there. In almost all of these cases, the perpetrators enjoy absolute impunity after committing their crimes. The investigations rarely lead to their capture or, even when they do, only those who carried out the killing are identified, while those who planned the crime go undetected. As time passes and the statute of limitations expires, those who planned the killing achieve their objectives: They have silenced a journalist, sent an ominous message, and gotten away with it.
Harassment of the press also comes in the form of laws or proposed legislation in numerous countries in the hemisphere. In many places, the authorities attempt to interfere in editorial content, such as in Venezuela, El Salvador, and Colombia, where a ruling by the Constitutional Court requires media outlets to update, on their own initiative, any information they post on the internet. In Ecuador, the legal structure inherited from the previous administration remains in place, one that established a procedural system and a Superintendency of Communication that operate against press freedom. In many countries, such as Barbados, no law ensuring access to public sources of information has been passed yet, or even where such a law has been passed, no regulations have been issued to implement the law, thus rendering it meaningless. In Argentina it is the executive branch that is responsible for issuing such regulations, while in Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, there are laws hindering access to information or, even if an access law does exist but compliance is hindered.
Meanwhile, attacks on media outlets that resort to the term "fake news" seem to be gaining ever more ground in the region. Behind these attacks by government officials or entities is a clear attempt to discredit the work of journalists, especially in the case of unfavorable reporting. The danger of these attacks is that they are aimed squarely at one of the pillars of democracy and, in specific cases such as that of the United States, they have helped generate mistrust in reporters and have even encouraged hostile acts against them. Remarkably, 31 physical assaults on journalists have been reported in the past year alone in the United States, a country whose Constitution includes protections for the press and for free speech. More than 30 reporters were arrested by police while doing their work. The media in the United States are generally under siege by a harsh rhetoric against them, led by President Donald Trump.
The situation in Cuba could not be worse. The attacks on journalists have now been extended to their family members and to users of social media as well. The restrictions emanate from the Constitution itself, which requires the press to adhere to the goals of the socialist revolution and prohibits private ownership of media outlets. Journalists cannot work legally unless they were members of the Union of Young Communists before entering university. Any journalist who may have looked into "state secrets" is punished, thus eliminating any chance of gaining access to information that should be public. Internet access is still restricted, and journalists continue to endure arbitrary arrests and receive absolutely unacceptable sentences.
In Venezuela, the regime of Nicolás Maduro has multiplied the mechanisms of censorship. The mere act of reporting on a protest against the government can currently be classified as terrorism, thus subjecting the journalist to the military court system. Television and radio stations continue to be shut down or subjected to so-called technical inspections. A number of international cable networks, including CNN en Español, have been banned for their editorial lines. Foreign journalists are often barred entry to Venezuela for no reason, and Venezuelan journalists assaulted by armed civilians and by a well-equipped National Guard that is willing to use indiscriminate violence to quell any unrest. The seizure of work implements is a common occurrence. Journalists also have a difficult time publishing their work due to a lack of newsprint or the shutdown of broadcast media outlets. Even if they do manage to get their work out, they run the risk of being taken to court for no valid reason.
Alongside this pattern of deteriorating press freedom, some positive developments have been reported, such as the guilty verdicts against those who killed journalists in Colombia and Guatemala, a more respectful climate for freedom of expression in Ecuador, and the near-certain possibility of stronger protection for the confidentiality of sources in Canada.