“Journalism is not a crime” was the key message delivered by a group of press freedom advocates at a press conference calling for the release of journalists detained in Latin America. In a plea for the protection of journalists and independent media, experts from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela spoke about the state of the media in their countries and the many challenges investigative reporters face throughout Latin America in the pursuit of stories that inform and educate the public.
The Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) is the proud sponsor of Voces del Sur, a network of Latin American civil society groups working together to defend freedom of expression and freedom of the press. On August 31, Voces del Sur member Fundamedios and PADF co-organized a press conference titled “Latin American Press Under Siege: Freedom for Detained Journalists,” at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. A broad group of international organizations also supported this event, including the Institute for Race, Equality and Human Rights; Inter American Press Association; Inter-American Dialogue; PEN-America; PEN-International; Committee to Protect Journalists; IFEX Latin America and the Caribbean; and Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). This event is among Voces del Sur’s various efforts to promote freedom of expression and advocate for the safety of journalists in Latin America.
The discussion was moderated by Fundamedios CEO Dagmar Thiel, who provided opening remarks and introduced a diverse panel of speakers, including Univision correspondent, Tifani Roberts; Radio Darío’s owner, Anibal Toruño of Nicaragua; Cuban human rights and democracy expert, Armando Chaguaceda; Carlos Roa, representative of the Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad; Luz Mely Reyes, reporter with Venezuela’s digital outlet Efecto Cocuyo; and Pedro Vaca Villareal, IACHR special rapporteur for freedom of expression.
The discussion focused on the escalating threats against freedom of the press and the safety of journalists across Latin America. While these dangers are most prevalent in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the entire region is experiencing a decline in protections for freedom of expression and an increase in aggressions against media professionals. This decline is well documented in Voces del Sur’s third annual Shadow Report, a study that monitors the progress that governments in the region are making toward the safety of journalists and public access to information.
The speakers noted a troubling trend, with innovative methods of coercion and the use of new technologies to target and harass reporters. While all-too-familiar tactics such as arbitrary detentions, physical attacks, and judicial persecutions continue to be deployed, the region’s leaders increasingly rely on harassment by online mobs and claims of “fake news” to silence, discredit, and intimidate journalists. Mely Reyes explained that “practicing journalism can take you to prison, to exile, to the hospital for physical injuries, and to the psychologist for mental health issues created by harassment.” The arsenal of weapons deployed against Latin America’s media professionals is ever-expanding and extremely effective.
Offenses against journalists have hindered the free media’s ability to provide accurate and timely reporting on critical issues. Journalists have struggled to inform citizens on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, from the toll that the virus has taken on the population, to the competence of government performance in managing this public health crisis. The various protests that sprung throughout Latin America have been similarly difficult to cover, with harsh state responses to the social turmoil. Journalists are also often victimized by overzealous policing. Media outlets endure dubious, politically motivated measures hoping to impede their reporting, or in some cases, to shut them down completely. These obstacles have made much of the region’s media ineffective in its coverage of major stories in the public interest.
The speakers agreed that the costs of hampering journalism are steep and widespread. Efforts to hold governments accountable are often accompanied by denial of fundamental freedoms and constitutional rights. Entire populations are kept in the dark as to their governments’ actions and are thus unable to exercise informed civic participation or take a stand against increasing authoritarianism throughout Latin America. The proper functioning of a democracy without a free, independent media, is simply untenable.
The escalating offensive against the free press in Latin America calls for a unified response to confront these abuses. Citizens, organizations, and governments must stand up in defense of the region’s persecuted journalists, regardless of ideological orientation. After all, as Chaguaceda remarked, “it is not a struggle between left and right, but between democracy and authoritarianism.”
PADF and its Voces del Sur partners, such as Fundamedios, are committed to advocating for the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of the press throughout Latin America. We firmly believe that a free and independent press is a cornerstone of democracy, key to promoting the open exchange of ideas and keeping government accountable to an informed citizenry.
In this podcast interview, Fundamedios CEO Dagmar Thiel, a PADF partner in our effort to promote freedom of the press and access to information in Latin America through the Voces del Sur network, speaks with Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Pedro Vaca Villarreal about the state of the media and journalism in the region; what can be done to keep the spotlight on the stories of murdered and detained journalists; the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on press freedom; and the steps the international community can take to support independent media, protect investigative journalists, and end impunity for crimes against journalists.
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