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.”
The channel’s director, Carlos Cerda Acuña, said that it had received threats that its headquarters would be blown up if it did not stop criticizing the government.
Elsewhere, on February 19, someone phoned Luis Galeano, a writer for the Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario. The message was simple: “You only have 72 hours to live.”
The same day, someone sent him a letter telling him to stop publishing stories about alleged fraud in the Supreme Electoral Council, which he and a colleague had covered one day earlier. El Nuevo Diario’s editor, Francisco Chamorro, said that this was the third threat Galeano had received in 2011. His physical safety also was challenged when he wrote about suspected corruption at the Finance Ministry.
Also, when El Nuevo Diario criticized corruption at Nicaragua’s Customs agency, this newspaper suddenly encountered delays in receiving imported production supplies that required Customs clearance.
‐ Next stop: Ecuador.
On March 21, President Rafael Correa filed a libel lawsuit against the newspaper El Universo and its executives. Correa apparently disliked an opinion piece that accused him of ordering an attack on a hospital during a September 2010 police revolt. Correa wants $80 million in damages — $30 million from the newspaper and the remaining $50 million to be paid personally by executives Carlos, César, and Nicolás Pérez and by opinion editor Emilio Palacio. Correa also wants these four men to spend three years in prison.
Correa’s litigiousness has become notorious around Latin America.
In February, he sued journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita over their book El Gran Hermano (Big Brother). It questioned government contracts received by Fabricio Correa — the brother of the president. This lawsuit demands that the journalists pay $10 million.
Correa will make more news on May 7 when Ecuadorians vote on whether to stop news-media owners from possessing other types of businesses — supposedly to prevent conflicts of interest. This ballot measure also would launch an official press council that could censor news coverage or, as the referendum states, make government “a regulator and controller of media content.”
On April 5, President Correa expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges. According to former U.S. diplomat Roger Noriega, who now is with the American Enterprise Institute, “The expulsion of the tough-minded Ambassador Hodges sweeps a potential critic out of the way.”
‐ Argentina is a wonderful country with warm, friendly, fun-loving, highly nocturnal, and carnivorous people — all superb qualities. How sad, then, to add this splendid nation to this list of notorious countries.
Last March 27, members of the left-wing Confederación General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labor) waved pro-government banners while blockading the joint printing plant of the anti-government newspapers Clarín and La Nación. On at least four earlier occasions, these obstructions have lasted six or more hours, effectively holding entire editions beyond the reach of readers.
In December and January, Argentine civil court judge Gastón Polo Olivera held that the right to demonstrate cannot hinder freedom of the press. He blocked these blockades and ordered Security Minister Nilda Garré to enforce his ruling. Nonetheless, police have let these barricades proceed. Thus, the Inter-American Press Association declared on April 7: “The lack of action by the prosecutors in the investigation of these events has led to an impunity that will undoubtedly become the main factor for the increasing threats.”
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports, President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner is “trying to transform Argentina’s communications industry through a law that would break up media monopolies and force cable TV providers to include channels run by unions, Indians, and other activists.”
Argentina’s most amazing news in this area happened March 29 when the University of La Plata gave its Rodolfo Walsh Journalism Prize to none other than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“The prize we are giving is not neutral. It is not aseptic,” Florencia Saintout, dean of the University’s journalism school, explained to Chavez as she bestowed this award on him. “You head a profound process of emancipation in Latin America.” Saintout praised Chavez “for his unquestionable and authentic commitment” to “giving a voice to people who are the least heard from.”
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.