Perils are increasing in Latin America for journalists. This is not quite the same as the filtering of the blogosphere in places like Pakistan and China. The Latin American version of filtering is to kidnap or outright murder the ladies and gentlemen of the media. Press freedom may be touted in a number of countries south of the U.S., but the reality is different. And it does not appear to be improving.
The Orlando Sentinel dealt with the subject well under the apt title, “Latin America’s Press Not This Bullied In Decades.” Press freedom in the Americas hasn’t been so threatened by violent reprisals, death threats and murders as well as censorship since the heady days of the dictatorships of the 1970s. These were also the days of the Ellsberg show, Presidential burglaries and troops shooting at students in Ohio. In the U.S. and other First World countries, the powers-that-be and the military might like to make some journalists disappear but seem to be sticking to the rules of engagement in the free world. The pen may not be mightier but they know how to keep their swords to themselves, mostly.
Down south, these threats are the result of dictatorial regimes such as the Chavez government in Venezuela. In others, like Mexico, the new President is struggling to bring some order to violent chaos. His government promises to offer more safety for journalists.
In Cuba, censorship is reaching the level of a Kafka nightmare. The freelance journalist, Oscar Sanchez Madan, has been given a four year prison sentence t on the charge of “pre-criminal dangerousness.” That nemesis island has been classified by a human rights organization as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.” It is said that some twenty-eight journalists are now in jail for simply doing their job. Some have gotten hit with sentences of up to twenty years in prison.
Mexico has raised itself from No. 3 in the world to No. 2 as the world’s most deadly country for journalists. It managed to push Columbia from that coveted spot in the repression sweepstakes. Just recently reporters for TV Azteca, a major network -Gamaliel Lopez Candanosa, and cameraman Gerardo Paredes – were among those who disappeared in the northern city of Monterrey. No word has been heard from them to date. A reporter for another major network, Televisa, was killed by gunfire.
As I reported here recently, organized crime gangs south of the border are fighting it out for the privilege of delivering substances to the Puritanical United States which in its infinite wisdom has made them as illegal as violence and rape. That made the products valuable enough to attract the most dangerous members of society. Their versions of doing business are not as gentle as those of, say, mergers and acquisition players in the corporate world – as far as I know. They settle things with guns. Oliver Stone’s fine film Salvador is yet another way to look at the problem of journalists in the midst of the agonies to our south. Some caused by our own government.
In Latin America the cartels can now throw money around, buy officials and police, arm themselves and insulate themselves. They became used to their power and are not relinquishing it gracefully. Down in Venezuela they’re really riding the wave of populist revolt and anti-democratic feelings that have grown from the anti-Americanism our government has worked so hard to create. Hugo Chavez may seem the clown, but he remains another symbol of a groundswell of restrictive governments using their power to censor thought, information and expression.
The Venezuelan regime’s plan is to close down the TV station, RCTV, which was an independent voice in the shifting politics of that country. He will replace RCTV with a network visibly controlled by the state. We are reminded that in 2003 Chavez was already promising that they would soon “… start closing down television stations. No freedom,” he said, “is unlimited.”
It’s thought that the United States has lost its moral power to intervene on the side of freedom because of the loss of our moral standing following the actions of Washington when it comes to spying and putting undue pressure on bona fide journalists. There are, after all, the spying cases and pressures on journalists to reveal their sources. There is the old cry of “national security” that now carries the ring of possibility in it.
Last Saturday protesters in Caracas marched against the Chavez plan to close the opposition TV station. Hugo Chavez, they said loudly, was “maiming Venezuelan democracy” in order to “forge a socialist state.” RCTV is Venezuela’s oldest private broadcaster. It is said to have involved itself in the 2002 coup attempt that ended up “bungled”.
The managing director of the station, Marcel Garnier, told protesters, according to Reuters: “Let us defend democracy, let us defend freedom, let us defend free independent media such as RCTV … Or we will allow the president to topple the country over the precipice of totalitarianism where not even his own supporters can express their opinions.”
Chavez plans to replace this station with a state-run channel that will follow his “self-styled leftist revolution.” It should be remembered that Chavez was elected last year by a very clear majority of Venezuelans and he still commands a 60% approval rating. It is interesting that almost 70% of Venezuelans would prefer that the TV station stayed on the air. However, this is Latin America. Many most fear the loss of the soap operas (telenovelas) which RCTV shows and which Chavez has accused of undermining the morality of the people. Dictators get away with a lot in Latin America, but messing with soap operas is a dangerous undertaking.
One of the clearest and most visible indices of freedom and democracy is a free press and guarantees of liberty of expression. These are seemingly under siege constantly even in places like Washington as well as Caracas. Recently the refinement of the 21st century version has been the censoring and blocking of blogs and the attempts to silence the growing cacophony of the new digital media and the writers and photographers who inhabit the Internet. Far from guarantees of freedom from the Web, we are beginning to see its weaknesses and the ease with which multinational corporations and governments can bring pressure to bear on cyberspace access.
The fight to be heard seems to be part of the human condition. The fight to dominate and control is the other part of that condition. Let us hope that the keyboard will remain mightier than the assault weapon.