UNESCO has designated Tuesday, May 3, as World Press Freedom Day. Latin America’s increasingly heavy-handed leaders should take that occasion to stop abusing this hemisphere’s journalists.
Thankfully, such mistreatment is terribly rare north of the Rio Grande. One recent counter-example occurred just last March 23.
Orlando Sentinel staff writer Scott Powers attended a $500-per-person fundraiser in Winter Park, Fla., featuring Vice President Joseph Biden. A Biden staffer told Powers to wait until the vice president showed up before covering his speech.
So, Powers was confined to a storage closet for more than an hour. Team Biden then freed this professional journalist for 35 minutes to observe the vice president’s speech as a pool reporter, on behalf of the entire press corps. Powers then was relegated to the closet for another 15 minutes, until the vice president sped away in his motorcade.
Biden staffer Elizabeth Alexander later sent Powers a rather lame message, especially under the circumstances:
“Scott — you have our sincere apologies for the lack of a better hold room today.”
This was bad news, but admittedly an unusual occurrence in the USA.
More worrisome is the Obama administration’s embrace of so-called “net neutrality” rules, which are supposed to make the Internet more open and accessible. This is very strange. If the Internet were any more open, we all would fall into it . . . and never be seen again.
Still, the Federal Communications Commission sees some sort of problem, so they are busy trying to do to the Internet what the rest of the Obama administration is doing to the U.S. health-care system. The GOP House correctly voted to kill net neutrality. The matter is now on the Democratic Senate’s desktop.
These two U.S. cases are mere mosquito bites compared to the body blows that news organizations, journalists, and vocal citizens are enduring in too many spots around the Americas.
Not everywhere, but in many places, oppressors have become more sophisticated and less overtly brutal in their media-control methods. Beating journalists in the streets is so much harder these days, now that literally millions of people instantly can transmit such scenes around the world via cell-phone cameras. And jailing journalists just creates high-profile victims around whom human-rights activists can organize liberation campaigns, petition drives, and demonstrations at the offending regimes’ embassies worldwide.
Such things can ruin an autocrat’s day.
It is far better, from the strong man’s perspective, to use more subtle and less visible pressure tactics. For instance, a heavy-handed ruler could denounce or discredit journalists whom he dislikes. Why not file lawsuits against them? Or, he could cancel their broadcast licenses. If he wanted to get a little rougher, he could let sympathetic groups muscle journalists while officials look away.
These techniques, alive and well in the Americas today, intimidate journalists while rarely drawing blood, creating martyrs, or putting faces onto posters, all of which could rally international opinion on behalf of oppressed members of the media.
Even better, from the dictators’ standpoint, teaching a lesson to one or two journalists might persuade others to watch their words. Why censor journalists when they can do that dirty work for you via self-censorship? (This is a good example of bad privatization.)
There is one huge exception to this trend of more subtle coercion — or, more specifically, 23 huge exceptions. But more on that in due course.
First, let’s examine press freedom — or the lack thereof — in a few countries in the Americas. This is not a complete picture. Instead, this is a quick walking tour of press-related hemispheric oppression. This journey draws generously from the excellent work of the Inter-American Press Association in Miami, which follows these issues with equal measures of energy and passion.
Consider Nicaragua, where Sandinista Daniel Ortega is president. Last January 17, a Nicaraguan cable-TV channel in Puerto Nuevo called Canal 15 Condega TV was tossed off the air by its cable carrier, supposedly on government orders. The day before Canal 15 was forced to go black, someone cut a fiber-optic cable and posted this note nearby: “We warned you, we didn’t want Canal 15 in Puerto Nuevo.”