Carlos Jornet - Chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information

Midyear Meeting
April, 19-22 2022

Carlos Jornet

Chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information

April 19, 2022

IAPA Mid-Year Meeting

We are closing a black semester for journalism in the Americas, full of ominous actions against freedom of expression and press freedom. A period that - together with the previous semester, which began in April 2021 - defines a year with record numbers of journalists murdered, imprisoned, sentenced and forced into exile, and long-established media raided and confiscated by authoritarian governments far removed from any institutionality.

All this, in turn, takes place in an extremely adverse context, which complicates the sustainability of companies.

The world is experiencing what seems to be the last throes of the pandemic that has been affecting us for two long years. But just as we were beginning to recover from this tsunami, Russia's invasion of Ukraine triggered a humanitarian tragedy in the heart of Europe.

Let me read a paragraph related to the conflict that keeps us on edge. It reads:

"Special Russian units invaded Ukraine and occupied key facilities. The Russian government and President Putin himself denied time and again that these were Russian troops and described them as spontaneous 'self-defense groups' who may have purchased Russian-looking equipment from local stores. While making this ridiculous claim, Putin and his aides knew full well that they were lying."

He adds:

"Russian nationalists can excuse this lie on the grounds that it served a higher truth. Russia is engaged in a just war, and if it is right to kill for a just cause, isn't it obvious that it is also right to lie? The higher cause that in theory justifies the invasion of Ukraine is the preservation of the sacrosanct Russian nation."

The text was written by Israeli historian Yuval Harari and is part of his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. As you may have already figured out - because that work was published in 2018 - Harari is not talking about the current war but about the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Why do I mention this today? Because the same matrix was applied by Putin to launch the current onslaught against Ukraine. And that Crimean "episode", which did not motivate major reactions from the international community, was then the prelude to the drama that is shaking us today.

Harari himself recalls the Ukrainian complaints about the fact that Putin had managed to deceive many Western media about the actions in Crimea and Donbas. And he warns in the book:

"We are living in a terrible post-truth era, when not only particular concrete incidents but entire histories and nations can be falsified. (...) Underlying all fake news are real facts and real suffering (...) Thousands of people have died for real."

Fortunately, America has not experienced warlike situations like those suffered by Ukraine for decades. But it suffers other "wars". "Wars" that also began with "minor incidents" and then escalated.

I am referring to the onslaughts that governments of democratic origin, with a strong authoritarian drift, unleash against citizens' rights, against freedom and the lives of innocent people. In some cases, also for the sake of presumed superior truths, of a just cause.

To this is added the actions of narco-crime and other forms of organized crime, which take advantage of state imperfection, if not outright complicity, to try (and in many cases succeed) in imposing their law on vast territories.

In these "invasions" against institutionality, against essential human rights, journalists and the media are generally among the first victims, as is also the case in Ukraine, where at least eight colleagues have already been killed while carrying out their work.

The seriousness of what is happening in our continent is clearly exposed when we see that so far this year Mexico has accumulated the same number of murdered journalists as a country devastated by war: eight, just one less than in the whole of 2021.

And since our October Assembly, 10 journalists have been killed by attacks in that country, and 15 if we count the three killed in Haiti, one in Guatemala and another in Honduras. If we make the calculation since April 2021, in 12 months there have been 24 journalists murdered in the continent, 16 of them in Mexico.

Is this just a failure of the systems for the protection of journalists? It is evident, as we will see later, the deficiencies of the security mechanisms for the press implemented by the Mexican government, as well as those of Colombia, Brazil and Honduras.

But this is not the only reason for this spike in violence. There is a clear irresponsibility that many leaders and officials avoid taking responsibility for. Last February 4 we warned, in a letter to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that "when journalism is confronted as a political strategy, the door is opened to the violent, to the intolerant."

And we add: "Denigrating the press from the top of power is not a dialectic game, a verbal fencing without consequences. And even less so in dark hours like the ones Mexico is going through."

Unfortunately, our request for restraint, and an almost simultaneous one from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as well as those made later by the European Parliament and other international organizations and entities, only merited disqualifications from López Obrador.

The president continues with his stigmatizations and mockery of journalists and media. He seems to be unaware that attacks against the press increased 85 percent since he assumed the presidency, according to a report by the organization Article 19. The same report estimated that in 2021, the president and his officials defamed the press at least 71 times.

Therefore, from this tribune we say once again: President López Obrador, face the gravity of the hour. Stop all stigmatizing discourse against the media and reporters. If you cannot stop the violence, at least do not encourage it.

Aggressions and attacks on journalists and media have multiplied in recent times in countries of the three Americas. In general, this has a lot to do with disqualifying and confrontational political discourse towards the press.

Heads of State in the region or leaders close to them frequently resort to this practice, in an attempt to discredit in advance investigations or denunciations published by the media. And this is accompanied by judicial or administrative harassment, threats to cancel official advertising to critical media and restrictions on access to public information and news coverage.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has already taken the escalation against the independent press to a higher level. His government passed several laws to restrict journalistic work and abuses, outrages, threats and hostile expressions against media and communicators are on the rise.

And what can we say about the Venezuelan regime headed by Nicolás Maduro? The systematic attacks and persecutions against independent journalism culminated with the seizure of the facilities of the newspaper El Nacional by the Armed Forces. They did so on the basis of an absurd and illegal sentence for alleged defamation, in a trial initiated by Diosdado Cabello, one of the exponents of Chavism.

Venezuela thus achieves a sad record of more than 120 media that disappeared or should have been left only with digital versions under Maduro's regime, due to the stifling imposed on them.

But undoubtedly the most serious administrative and judicial persecution in the last six months took place in Nicaragua.

There is no longer room for lukewarm, speculative attitudes or confusions of false progressives: the Ortega-Murillo marriage seeks the extinction of independent journalism.

Their lust for power does not admit criticism. In their conception, there is no room for freedom of thought. Whoever thinks differently and dares to express it, must go to jail or go into exile.

The colleague Emilio García-Ruiz - director of the San Francisco Chronicle - said in a recent interview that the first thing a fascist does is to attack the press. We know this very well in Latin America. And it doesn't surprise us.

What is surprising is that supposedly progressive intellectuals and politicians continue to support dictators like Ortega. Or not so surprising, because the ideological extremes always resemble each other. It is increasingly difficult to differentiate between right-wing and left-wing populists.

It is estimated that, since June 2021, 75 journalists and media owners have been forced into exile. And after the gross electoral parody of last November 7, the Justice of the regime staged mock trials to irregularly condemn leaders, activists and six journalists, three of them executives of La Prensa, to several years in prison. Among these, our regional vice-president Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro, general manager of this emblem of Nicaraguan journalism.

This attack on freedom of the press completes the onslaught that began last year with the assault on the facilities of La Prensa, Confidencial and 100 por ciento Noticias.

We therefore raise our voice to say: Daniel Ortega, do not continue to betray the ideal of freedom of the Nicaraguan people that you once raised and today repress with savagery.

Nicaragua today increasingly resembles Castro's Cuba, where two colleagues recently had to go into exile and two others were imprisoned.

On the island there are repeated persecutions and attacks on journalists, prison sentences for demanding more freedom and restrictions on the practice of journalism. There is also digital surveillance, as in El Salvador and Venezuela.

Also alarming is the accelerated deterioration of press freedom in Peru under the administration of Pedro Castillo.

I return then to those texts by Harari with which I began this synthesis of the period. As in Ukraine, in the area of public liberties and citizens' rights, the region is lighting alarm bells that IAPA seeks to detect in time.

Because only with a strong and timely international reaction can we try to contain in time the escalation of conflicts, as is happening in Europe, or institutional degradations such as those currently being experienced in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Or climates of extreme violence such as those in Mexico and several Central American countries.

In all these cases, post-truth, manipulation of information and the dissemination of "stories" that are repeated as consecrated truths are usually present. Appeals are made to "just causes," to "superior truths," to justify a discrediting, an administrative persecution, a rigged court case, the illegal denial of a right, expropriation, imprisonment....

Those who claim to represent the people understand that any criticism against them is an attack against a higher principle. They thus disregard the legitimate and inalienable right of citizens to control the acts of government.

Even in consolidated democracies, such as those of Canada and the United States, recurrent obstacles to access to public information are denounced. And in the case of the United States, cases of judicial harassment of the media persist, as well as attacks against journalists covering social protests.

We appreciate and are grateful for the efforts made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and in particular by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, to make this reality visible.

But we must continue working. And we will do so together with sister organizations in the region and the rest of the world; together with multilateral organizations; together with international media and news agencies.

So that the issue does not fall off the agenda.

So that despotism and censorship are not normalized.

So that we do not stumble over and over again with the same stone.

In the coming hours we will give voice in this meeting to relatives of those persecuted and detained by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. And together with almost three dozen sister organizations at a global or continental level, we will present a plan of action for Nicaragua to recover a framework of freedom and citizen debate.

From the IAPA, from this Committee on Freedom of the Press, we will continue to deploy actions and generate alliances in this regard.

This year we will present a new edition of the Chapultepec Index, our annual assessment of press freedom in the Americas. We will also publish a book that reflects the process of preparing the survey and the analyses it allows us to make on the framework surrounding the exercise of journalistic activity in each country.

And next Thursday we will formally launch the SIPBot, a new tool that uses artificial intelligence to measure in real time the climate of freedom in journalism.

But also, and this is the most important thing, it enables us to quickly collect and process complaints of violations of this essential human right and to disseminate and receive information and opinions.

Finally, some positive events that have taken place during these months.

The most recent is the presentation of the bill on negotiation between media and platforms, in Canada - which tends to guarantee a free and independent press.

We also highlighted at the time the judicial conviction in Brazil of the perpetrators of the murder of Pablo Medina and his assistant, which occurred in Paraguay in October 2014; the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in favor of El Universo, its political columnist and its directors who had been sued by the then president Rafael Correa; the repeal of the Secrecy Law in Honduras; the bill on protection for journalists in Paraguay, and legislative initiatives on the protection of confidential sources in Puerto Rico.

This good news does not make up for the dark panorama we have described above.

But they allow us to redouble our hope and our will to fight for freedom of the press and freedom of expression throughout the continent.

Let us not give up in the face of brutality.

Let us make our voices heard.

Let us demand that governments throughout the continent -national, state and local- provide full guarantees for the exercise of journalistic work.

Let them respect and enforce the right of citizens to receive and disseminate information without censorship or pressure.

To the speeches of autocrats who want a world free of journalists, let us respond that "there are no free people or societies without freedom of expression and freedom of the press."

Because, as the opening words of our Chapultepec Declaration rightly state, "a free press is a fundamental condition for societies to resolve their conflicts, promote well-being and protect their freedom of expression."