Carlos Jornet, President of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, April 25, 2023

Midyear Meeting 2023
April, 25-27

Opening of the Mid-Year Meeting of the IAPA

Carlos Jornet

President of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information

April 25, 2023

Good morning. Like so many of us who are enthusiastic about the world of communication and technological advances, I began exploring the possibilities of new artificial intelligence tools weeks ago. And I threw a question to one of the best known that will surely be around the debates these days: What are the main challenges for American journalism in 2023?

In less than 40 seconds, the bot presented me with 380 words in which, after clarifying that as a "language model," it cannot accurately predict the future, it mentioned five challenges. I summarize them.

The first is the spread of false news and the manipulation of information, which force us to strengthen verification mechanisms.

The second is censorship, in the form of threats, intimidation, and attacks, which condition democracy and development.

The third challenge is the economic crisis, which limits the capacity of the media to investigate and report and affects the quality of journalism.

The fourth that artificial intelligence identifies is political polarization, which leads to the media being seen as biased or partisan, which affects their credibility.

And the fifth challenge is, for the chatbot, the competition with social networks, which have changed how people consume news and forced us to find new ways to attract news consumers.

Curiously, or not so curiously, the bot did not include among the five challenges posed by artificial intelligence. So could it be that we shouldn't worry? It will be one of the axes of the meeting that we started.

But let me continue with the anecdote. Because I continued my chat with the bot, asking what is the importance of press freedom. And it responded with phrases like "We must demand protection and respect for journalists and the media and fight against any attempt at censorship or repression, as well as support independent and quality media, which are essential for the exercise of an informed and critical citizenry."

"Freedom of the press – it added – is not only a right of journalists but all citizens. Therefore, we must defend and protect it to ensure our societies are truly free and democratic."

However, I wanted to go further and ask it: "Write, please, a speech with an authoritative look at the risks of journalism for society." He then changed the tone of the dialogue, and in 350 words that took just over 30 seconds to reach my screen, he issued a warning that I summarized:

"Citizens: I am speaking to you today to discuss an issue that has become a growing threat to our society: irresponsible journalism. (...) Journalists who do not do their job responsibly threaten the stability and cohesion of our society. They perpetuate misinformation and fear rather than provide a reliable source of information.

"As an authority, we must take measures to protect society from the risks of irresponsible journalism. We must impose sanctions on those media outlets that do not meet quality and ethical standards. (...) The risks of irresponsible journalism are too great to ignore.

"As an authority, we must take steps to protect our society from misinformation and sensationalism that threaten to undermine our stability and cohesion. Together we can work to ensure that our media is a trusted and valuable resource for our society."

Why do I start my report on press freedom with this exercise?

Indeed, we will agree that the five challenges the chat focused on are the main concerns we discuss in these meetings. We can group them into two main axes: obstacles to the free exercise of journalism and the need to ensure the sustainability and independence of the media.

But also, my talk with the bot illuminates a new challenge, that of artificial intelligence itself, which presents two facets: one, as an opportunity to innovate and create new valuable products and services for our audiences; another, as a risk of multiplying misinformation, manipulation, and control over journalists and the media.

The authoritarian speech I asked the bot reflects the thinking of dictators in the region, such as Miguel Díaz-Canel, Nicolás Maduro, and Daniel Ortega, who, with the excuse of protecting society and preserving national unity, repress dissent and establishing a single speech.

Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua continue to be the most critical countries in the region regarding freedom to inform.

In the latter country, the regime headed by Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, intensified its attacks against all dissidents. To do this, it increased the number of political prisoners, the cancellation of non-governmental organizations, the theft of property, and censorship.

And it not only deported 222 political prisoners, stripped them of their nationality, and deprived them of property and rights, as well as another 94 people (10 journalists) continue to be detained in the country. It was a kind of "civil death," a figure that dated back to ancient Greece and was applied by Nazism after most countries abolished it in the 19th or early 20th century.

For this reason, due to the systematic violations of human rights and other acts of extreme cruelty towards the opponents, the Ortega regime is accused of "crimes against humanity."

Also, physical attacks on journalists and the closure and confiscation of media outlets are routine in Venezuela. In addition, since our October assembly, the frequencies of 80 radio stations have been reassigned to people close to Chavismo.

The blocking of national and foreign news sites, threats, harassment, and attacks on journalists and media managers are also standard.

In Cuba, the blockade to access the Internet is maintained, there are fewer independent journalists, and those who remain in the country survive in hazardous material and mental conditions.

The repression of the press and independent activists continues, so there are more than a thousand political prisoners. Two communicators remain in prison, and nine journalists are prohibited from leaving the country, among them the regional vice president of this Commission, Henry Constantin.

A positive fact in the region is that this semester the number of murders of communicators decreased. However, we registered nine cases, four in Haiti (in addition to four kidnappings in a country experiencing an acute political, economic, and social crisis) and one in Colombia, the United States, Paraguay, Honduras, and Guatemala, respectively.

In Mexico – a country until now considered one of the riskiest in the world for– no violent deaths have been recorded since October. However, intimidation and violent acts continue, especially in high-crime areas.

President Andrés López Obrador and federal and state officials continue to denounce those who dare to question the government, so there is a risk that organized crime will assassinate those who criticize their actions and their ties to politics.

The Salvadoran Nayib Bukele follows the same path of stigmatizing the press, although he exhibits as an achievement that there are no closed media in his country. However, under the pretext of ending the gangs, Bukele appeals to the emergency regime to persecute the independent press and carry out cyber-attacks, financial drowning, and espionage against it, translating into reporters' exile and the establishment of media outlets.

The digital outlet El Faro moved its offices to Costa Rica due to government persecution, and Canal 33 ceased operations for the same reason.

Also, in the Guatemala of Alejandro Giammattei, the environment for freedom of expression continues to deteriorate. Not satisfied with keeping the member of our Board of Directors, José Rubén Zamora, in prison, in a case promoted with tricks by the Public Ministry, an investigation was ordered for alleged "obstruction of justice." It is against six journalists and two columnists of the newspaper he owns, elPeriódico –including former IAPA president Gonzalo Marroquín–all had to emigrate to avoid being imprisoned without due process.

The situation is also increasingly complex in Ecuador. There have been attacks and kidnappings against journalists and the media, and there have been reports of obstruction of journalistic work, cyberbullying and cyberattacks, verbal aggression, censorship, harassment, stigmatization, theft or elimination of work materials, and damages to the property.

Attacks by officials, judicial and administrative harassment, and violence against those who report on social disorders were also registered in Peru, a country considered to be at its worst moment since the return of democracy in the year 2000.

Similar problems are faced, to a greater or lesser degree, by journalists and media from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, the United States, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Argentina. In these last three countries, concern about the advance of the drug trade is growing, especially in the city of Rosario, one of Argentina's most populated urban centers.

The presentation in Chile of two state protection projects for journalists, based on the Unesco model, deserves to be highlighted. Also positive was the conviction in Peru of Daniel Urresti for the murder of journalist Hugo Bustíos in 1988, the sentence by the Inter-American Court making Paraguay responsible for violating human rights in the Santiago Leguizamón's murder in 1991, and the ruling of the UN Human Rights Committee that holds Ecuador accountable for violating El Universo journalists and shareholders human rights.

Finally, we highlight that Dominican President Luis Abinader called on State agencies to comply with the Law on Access to Information. The obstacles to obtaining data in the hands of the states continue to be a widespread problem on the continent. Some countries have made progress in this area. Still, there is never a lack of officials who interpret laws and decrees to keep confidential data that should be transparent and accessible, thanks to new technological advances.

And since we returned to the technological topic, I leave the end for our friend, the bot, who, after the severe outburst I mentioned, recognized that there are reasons to be optimistic beyond our challenges.

"In recent years," he told me, "we have seen the emergence of a new generation of journalists committed to defending press freedom and seeking the truth. Additionally, the advancement of technology has opened new possibilities for independent and collaborative journalism, allowing previously marginalized voices a platform to be heard."

"We have also seen - the stated - organizations and citizens committed to the fight against censorship and control of information, which shows that society is willing to defend their rights."

From the IAPA, we agree with this optimistic vision and the need to involve all citizens in the defense of freedom of expression and the press. And we believe that, like all technology, artificial intelligence should be an ally in this fight and not just another weapon authoritarianism uses to contaminate social debate.

The SIPBot we launched two years ago to monitor freedom of expression on the continent daily is a clear example of the positive use of artificial intelligence. And there are already media that make virtuous applications of these new developments.

The challenge, then, is not technology but –as it happens with all scientific advances– how to translate it into better research, higher quality, more sustainable journalism, closer to the audience, and less exposure to censorship, manipulation, and intolerance.

The chatbot says, "Although there are challenges, the future of journalism in the region depends on the ability of journalists and citizens to take advantage of these new opportunities and continue fighting for press freedom and the right to information."