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


79th IAPA General Assembly, November 9 - 12, 2023, Mexico City, Mexico


General Assembly, Mexico, November 10, 2023

In a troubled world, the rulers of our continent continue to wage their wars. A year and a half ago, just as we were beginning to leave behind the tragic consequences of the pandemic, Russia invaded Ukraine. For the past month, we have been dismayed by the severe conflict in the Middle East. Both wars have already cost the lives of more than 40 reporters.

But once again, as in the pandemic, it is still professional journalism, responsible journalism, which, despite the risks, provides verified information to counteract the disinformation that spreads through social media.

As we said in April 2022, we should be thankful that America has not been the scene of war for a long time. But it does suffer from other "wars" that shake the continent and that, far from diminishing, are growing in intensity and multiplying in more and more countries: Authoritarian governments of the left or right, which came to power through the ballot box and then asphyxiate and persecute the very people who voted for them; narco-violence; other forms of organized crime; politicians, business people, trade unionists, and security forces ravaged by corruption; merchants who profit from the needs of migrants and political exiles; groups outside the law that plunder natural resources, and a long etcetera.

For all of them, the press is one of their first victims.

Media that do not accept to be accomplices of the abuse of institutions and human rights are economically asphyxiated, raided, closed, and confiscated.

Journalists who refuse to remain silent, who investigate and denounce, suffer persecution, jail, banishment, harassment and cyber-attacks, physical violence, and, in many cases, death.

The Mexican society knows this very well, where since 1987 (that is, in 37 years), 213 journalists have been executed, at an average of almost six per year, with a rising trend and astonishing impunity for the material and intellectual perpetrators.

The most critical six-year periods were those of Felipe Calderón, with 59 journalists murdered between 2006 and 2012 (10 per year), and the current administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with 55 violent deaths in the 1805 days between December 1, 2018, and today, an average of 11 journalists killed per year. Practically double the average of these 37 years.

A positive fact is that in the last six months -since our Assembly in Madrid last October, that is, in the previous year - the number of deaths has fallen to three, to which must be added a colleague unaccounted for.

But that cannot be considered an achievement. It should not be a cause for enthusiasm. It is a positive sign amid a tragedy that must end.

And that will not happen if the president continues with his hostile messages against journalists and the media, if the necessary resources are not assigned to the protocols for the protection of journalists if work is not done to reduce impunity rates in cases of threats and attacks on the press; if security for the practice of journalism is not assumed as a state policy and federal and state efforts are not coordinated.

If we look at the figures for the last six months in the rest of the continent, there were two more murders of reporters in Guatemala, one in Haiti, and one in Colombia.

But the drama of violence against the press does not end there. In the six months between our midyear meeting and today, we note two journalists imprisoned in Cuba, one in Nicaragua, and the continued detention of José Rubén Zamora in Guatemala. In this case, we highlight the decision of a court to hold a new trial by the law and not as a result of political persecution.

We also highlight the release of a detainee in Venezuela.

But the number of exiled journalists continues to rise: since April, we count one in Bolivia, Colombia, and Paraguay; two in Ecuador; eight in Guatemala; no less than 29 due to persecution by the Nicaraguan regime, and two exiles and one request for asylum in Paraguay.

Meanwhile, 12 journalists in Cuba are forbidden to travel within the island and even more to leave the country. A similar situation is faced by several journalists in Honduras and dozens in Haiti.

In the latter country, which is experiencing a humanitarian tragedy because of a failed state, reporters have been kidnapped, as in Nicaragua.

Attacks and threats are multiplying against the media and journalists in Argentina (due to drug trafficking and electoral tensions), Brazil (in street protests), Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti (where a radio station was burned), as well as in Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela.

Far from taking measures to stop this avalanche of attacks, the discrediting and stigmatizing attitudes against the press are repeated in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela.

The Costa Rican Constitutional Court's ruling against stigmatization is positive news; the advances in Chile and Paraguay to create protection mechanisms against journalists; the initiative in the United States to protect information and identity of sources, and the projects in the Dominican Republic to decriminalize penalties against journalists and in Uruguay to include print media in a tax exemption regime.

But at the same time, at the national or local level, there are bills against journalism, as we will see in the reports from Argentina, Peru, and Colombia. Or measures of fiscal asphyxiation and financial encirclement, as in Bolivia and Nicaragua, or judicial harassment, sometimes with lawsuits running into millions of dollars, in Chile, El Salvador, the United States, Guatemala, Panama, and Paraguay.

This persecution occasionally leads to the closure of media outlets or the cessation of print editions, as in recent cases in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Problems in making access to public information practical are reiterated in El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and the USA, to name only the most recent cases. Still, there are also blockages to the distribution of news by private companies (as occurred in Canada due to retaliation by Google and Meta against the passing of the Online News Act) or by decisions of state dictatorships, as in Venezuela and Cuba.

As a contribution to the crusade against violence and actions to silence the press, in parallel to this Assembly, we will start a workshop on safety for journalists tomorrow, sponsored by Google News Initiative. Our Redacciones + Seguras project aims to help newsrooms create security protocols adapted to their context and needs.

For this workshop, we have invited 15 media outlets from the interior of Mexico, and we plan to continue it for three months with virtual mentoring so that each media outlet has its security protocol.

It is a pilot project whose experience and results will allow us to extend it to other Latin American countries where it is necessary to create more awareness to protect journalists, such as Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina, and Guatemala.

On the other hand, during this Assembly, we will be holding panels on "electoral processes and violence against the press," on relations between the police and the press, and on "protection of data, sources, and journalists."

Indeed, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Pedro Vaca, will speak on Sunday in an interview with Roberto Rock.

As can be seen from the picture we have drawn, America is suffering from a real authoritarian tragedy. In 2023, we should be celebrating the 45th anniversary of the beginning of re-democratization in Latin America and, in a few months, the 50th anniversary of the birth of the third wave of democracy globally.

However, the continent arrives at these anniversaries with a sad reality. Three countries live under dictatorial regimes; an essential group of nations can be considered hybrid or imperfect democracies, and it is increasingly difficult to speak of full democracies.

The impact on journalism's practice is reflected in the new edition of the Chapultepec Index, which we will present this morning.

In Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, there is no freedom of expression and press freedom; journalists are spied on, persecuted, and forced into exile; independent media have disappeared or must go underground; any dissident voice is criminalized.

Several of the failed democracies are dangerously close to a similar scenario. I am referring to countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia, Haiti, Honduras, Peru, and Ecuador.

Countries that experienced years of democratic springtime face economic, social, and political crises that translate into growing insecurity and high instability. These crises are also reflected in the emergence of messianic leaders because of a society willing to give up its freedoms in exchange for quick answers to its most pressing needs.

In nations with more consolidated democracies, the conditions for exercising the task of informing are substantially better. Still, they are not free from messianic leadership, and there are warning signs that were unthinkable until recently, such as the aforementioned judicial harassment, the extension of information deserts, and the recurrent restrictions on access to public information.

The context is particularly problematic. In the face of the democratic decline that the region is experiencing, we must promote more and better democracy.

Far from giving up, we must redouble our fight for freedom, our country-by-country appeals, and the search for alliances with international organizations and other institutions that defend freedom of expression at the national, regional, or global level.

The seriousness of the situation demands much more than sectoral approaches and isolated responses.

It is increasingly clear that abuses and attacks on journalism do not only affect freedom of expression and freedom of the press but that these are only the first victims of an attack on democracy, the canary in the mine that warns of institutional deterioration.

It leads us to reiterate: without democracy, there is no free press, but without a free press, there is no democracy.

A few days ago, upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the National University of Córdoba, political scientist Daniel Zovatto warned that "we are facing a democracy under harassment, besieged by numerous threats that manifest themselves in a growing polarization, the proliferation of fake news and a resurgence of illiberal populisms." He added, citing the words of Moises Naim, that democracy today suffers from the three P's: polarization, populism, and post-truth.

Our responsibility as an organization for the defense of press freedom has always been, therefore, to promote debates that break the so-called bubbles of meaning and promote active, non-sectarian citizenship, to fight for the entire validity of democratic and republican institutions, and to combat post-truth, disinformation, with a responsible exercise of journalism and demanding transparency and accountability from those in power.

"Freedom," said Martin Luther King, "is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Let us join forces so that there will be no more oppression and censorship on the continent.