Free Press Under Fire in the Americas
South of the border, muzzling journalists is a growing trend.


Deroy Murdock

In 2005, Chavez used petroleum revenues to launch Telesur, a government-financed alternative to private stations throughout Latin America. In an ironic twist, the cameras of private TV channels were forbidden from transmitting the ceremony in which Chavez collected his press-freedom prize. Instead, the eyes of the world had exactly one source for images of that event: Chavez’s own Telesur network!

Chavez’s lenses were the only ones allowed to witness his claim that Venezuelans enjoy “absolute freedom to criticize, absolute freedom of thought, absolute freedom of expression.” Chavez added, “It’s just the bourgeoisie that wants to impose its voice. It doesn’t want to hear the voice of the people.”

This must have sounded like real news to Venezuelan journalists.

Hugo Chavez forced the opposition Radio Caracas Television off the air in 2007 by refusing to renew its broadcast license. Last year, Chavez’s telecommunications agency told cable companies to dump RCTV International because it refused to air Chavez’s speeches and other mandatory programs. The Chavez regime also denied licenses to, and consequently silenced, two small TV channels and 38 radio stations — four of them the same week that Chavez received his award for journalistic excellence!

While the University of La Plata seems to have tumbled into a river, the Venezuelan National Press Workers Association has kept an even keel.

“Our union,” they wrote, “has borne witness . . . to multiple actions taken under the government of President Chavez to create censorship and self-censorship among journalists and independent media and establish in Venezuela what was termed by current Information Minister Andrés Izarra as ‘communications hegemony.’”

Thanks to Chavez’s rigid currency-control policy, Venezuelans can get into huge trouble merely by publishing the relative values of bolivares and dollars.

“Even citing the real (i.e., non-controlled) price of dollars in domestic currency is now a crime punishable with a fine worth up to Bs.55,000 — some $12,790 at the official rate,” Francisco Toro wrote February 15 for a website called What’s Next, Venezuela? He added, “It is, of course, illegal for me to tell you what the real going rate for dollars is . . . Illegal currency traders are nothing if not resourceful: they have set up and maintain anonymous websites to share reference prices, and communicate actively to keep the market operating.”

Hugo Chavez’s role model, of course, is the apparently immortal Fidel Castro. He has spent more than 52 years hammering journalists. Most recently, he has expelled at least 18 independent journalists, including many who had been trapped behind bars. In April, Castro exiled Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernandez to Spain. He previously was serving a three-year prison sentence for “disrespect.”

Unfortunately, American Alan Gross remains jailed on a 15-year sentence for illegally importing computers into Cuba as part of a pro-democracy initiative. Former President Jimmy Carter visited Cuba in March and tried to free this contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Alas, he was unsuccessful. Alan Gross remains an American prisoner of Castro and should be freed at once. Until then, American citizens should keep him in their thoughts, and U.S. officials should keep his liberation on Washington’s agenda.

Meanwhile, there is a major exception to these generally more subtle techniques of oppression that currently are on offer south of the border.

One can do nothing less subtle to a journalist than kill him. Sadly, in 2010, 23 journalists were murdered in the Americas. These included one in Colombia, two in Brazil, nine in Honduras, and 11 in Mexico. Most, if not all, appear to have fallen victim to criminals and criminal gangs and cartels rather than politicians and bureaucrats. In either case, they are dead, and their societies are that much poorer for their absence.

Freedom-loving people should speak up on behalf of journalists across the Americas and around the world. The more friends they have, or at least are perceived to have, the less eager despots will be to pry them from their deadlines . . . or line them up for death. World Press Freedom Day offers the perfect opportunity to focus on this vital issue and demand free expression in every corner of this hemisphere and every crevice around the world.

Those who challenge tyrants should be proud to associate themselves with Thomas Jefferson, who once said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”

– New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. This op-ed is adapted from Murdock’s address to “The Rule of Law and Institutions in Latin America,” an April 15 conference in Buenos Aires co-sponsored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, with which he is a senior fellow.