Turning Evidence into Action: Using Data to Improve Journalist Security in Latin America

By Santiago Villa, Strategist and Content Developer, Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights

According to an expert panel moderated by Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) Program Manager Chloe Zoeller, journalists in Latin America are increasingly threatened by authoritarian trends and organized crime, while democracy sparks little enthusiasm among citizens in the region.

Democracy is undergoing a dire crisis: skepticism toward the importance of institutions and transparent elections is on the rise. According to Voces del Sur’s (VDS) latest annual Shadow Report, 2022 was the most violent year for the press in Latin America since network monitoring began five years ago. Furthermore, Latin America was the most dangerous region in the world for the exercise of journalism in 2022.

In this context, insight from the leading panel of experts gave a diagnosis of the greatest challenges for freedom of expression, as well as recommendations as to how to use the data provided by monitoring and research to solidify journalistic protections and free speech.

Struggling Democracies and Sky-High Impunity

Dr. Judith Matloff of the University of Columbia School of Journalism stressed that impunity is the greatest threat to journalism and freedom of expression. Matloff shared:

Governments, narcos, and organized crime syndicates can get away with whatever they want and there are no effective legal or security strategies that journalists have in order to protect themselves.”

The most important thing journalists lack, according to Matloff, are resources. Journalists in Latin America don’t have the support or ability to fight back when sued for libel, which is an intimidation and retaliation tactic used by targets of journalistic investigations who usually have the resources to engage in costly and lengthy court proceedings. Matloff reflected that oftentimes, journalists don’t even have the most basic gear – such as helmets, protective eye goggles, and vests – to provide physical security when reporting from violent protests or other contexts. Matloff also shared that her research at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma shows that resources for crisis situations are particularly scarce, such as when journalists are forced into emergency exile due to their reporting.

Senior Director for the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy, Dr. Nicholas Benequista, posed the question: “why aren’t more people outraged?” citing the fact that Latin America and Asia are the most dangerous regions in the world for journalism. He shared that “there are some clues to answering this question in other trends, and these clues give us an indication of our challenges collectively,” citing three data points: 1) the stagnant or falling support for freedom of expression, 2) declining trust in news, and 3) low levels of satisfaction with democracy more broadly.

Benequista stressed that too many citizens don’t see journalists as servants of the public good and may falsely believe there must be a choice between freedom of expression and security. A new paradigm is needed so that citizens equate press freedom with public interest, ultimately becoming convinced of the essentiality of journalism. This, Benequista added, is a push that can only be born from local networks of solidarity, such as No Nos Callarán of Guatemala, Abraji of Brazil, and VDS, which represents the region collectively.

In an environment in which citizens are skeptical of democracy, states feel empowered to suppress freedom of the press. According to VDS’s research, the state is responsible for over half of all violations of freedom of expression and press. This means the guarantor of fundamental freedoms has instead become their greatest violator. Backsliding is spreading to previously positive press contexts, such as in Costa Rica, where stigmatizing discourse is on the rise. Instead of authorities condemning violations against press freedom in undemocratic countries, there seems to be a desire to emulate their example.

An authoritarian trend is on the rise and where this authoritarian trend is growing, freedom of the press is absolutely in danger.”

Dagmar Thiel, CEO of Fundamedios USA, mentioned that in many countries – such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Paraguay – where protection mechanisms exist for journalists, they are vastly insufficient and do not address the root problems and, consequently, fail in guaranteeing heightened security.

As evidenced by the nearly 200 gender alerts recorded by Voces del Sur in 2022, women and LGBITQ+ journalists can also suffer distinct and sexualized forms of violence. According to Paula Saucedo, Protection and Defense Program Officer at Article 19, the challenges leading to this reality are mainly attributable to underreporting, which is caused by a plethora of reasons, including valid fears of being retraumatized – due to extractive and exploitative systems – among victims.

A Path Toward Healing Democracies

Matloff expressed that civil society and activists can play a large role in supporting press freedom by pushing to increase quality education for journalists, especially in rural areas, and in solidifying solidarity networks for better advocacy and safety efforts. Information about resources and support, such as therapists and lawyers, should be readily available for journalists. In this vein, Matloff added that universities should develop curricula that teach the next generation of journalists how to conduct work in a safer way, and they should collect data about violence against journalists and make it public in research reports and in-depth studies.

According to Matloff, local journalists could consider passing highly sensitive information to foreign journalists for them to publish, providing a slight shield for those at greater risk. Solidarity between journalists across the political spectrum is essential to protect all journalists:

Even if the journalists in a country can’t agree on anything else, they can agree that their safety is essential. And so, the basic act of beginning to bring them together to report can be healing.”

Benequista added having gender-sensitive data, such as that produced by VDS, is the only way of covering blind spots and thus giving a full understanding of violence against journalists. With more information comes more power, and journalists can use accurate data to push for change. Benequista also stressed that, rather than introducing disinformation regulations often manipulated to silence journalists, governments must enable conditions for good quality independent media to thrive, which is the only path to defeating disinformation.

This solidarity work should also be used to call upon global institutions and governments to turn their gaze toward Latin America. “With VDS and their Shadow Report, we have a voice talking about what is happening in the Global South, which is essential in this moment, when you have most of the big freedom of expression organizations centered in Paris or New York looking to Ukraine, Russia, Afghanistan, India, China, or Iran. We need to raise our voice and that is easier being together,” said Thiel.

The standardization of methodologies to monitor violations of press freedom, such as that of VDS, is invaluable in creating data that can be used to reduce attacks against freedom of the press.

“This constitutes an early warning to states, the press, and even society about violence against the press.”

Published on August 23, 2023.

Camila Payan

Camila Payan

Thematic Senior Director – Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights

Email: connect@padf.org

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