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Issue #1742      August 3, 2016

Times of violence and resistance for Latin American journalists

Journalists in Latin America have been facing growing state repression and violence in recent years. Daniela Pastrana surveys the grim scene.

Mexico is the most dangerous country in Latin America for journalists. In 2015 it accounted for one-third of all murders of reporters in the region, and four more journalists have been added to the list so far this year.

The latest, Francisco Pacheco Beltran, was shot dead outside his home in the southern state of Guerrero last April 25. Pacheco Beltran regularly covered crime and violence, which have been on the rise in connection with organised crime and drug trafficking. He worked for several local media outlets in Mexico’s poorest state, which is also one of the most violent.

His murder adds one more chapter to the history of terror for the press in Mexico in this new century, which has included not only the killings of 92 journalists, but also a phenomenon that is almost unheard of in democratic countries around the world: 23 journalists have been forcibly disappeared in the last 12 years, an average of two a year.

And every 22 hours, a journalist is attacked in Mexico, according to the latest report by the Britain-based anti-censorship group Article 19.

“Violence against the press in Mexico is systematic and widespread,” said the former director of the organisation’s Mexico branch, Dario Ramirez, on the last International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, celebrated each November 2.

But violence and impunity are not the only problems faced by journalists in Mexico and the rest of the region.

Ricardo Gonzalez, Article 19’s global protection program officer, told Inter Press Service (IPS) that freedom of the press in Latin America faces three principal challenges: prevention, protection and the fight against impunity; the de-concentration of media ownership; and improving the working conditions of journalists.

“For us, the red zones are Mexico, Honduras and Brazil,” Gonzalez said.

According to the Federation of Latin American Journalists (FEPALC), 43 journalists were killed in the region in 2015, including 14 in Mexico (besides two who were forcibly disappeared). Mexico is followed by Honduras (10), Brazil (eight), Colombia (five) and Guatemala (three).

Brazil’s National Federation of Journalists reported a 60% rise in the number of journalists killed between 2014 and 2015. The highest-profile case was the murder of investigative reporter Evany Jose Metzker, whose decapitated body was found in May 2015.

Honduras and Mexico have a similar problem: the violence against journalists is compounded by a culture of impunity.

“In the first half of 2015, the Commission registered a worrying number of unclarified murders of communicators and media workers,” says the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) annual report on Honduras.

Not just murders

But violence is not the only threat faced by the media in Honduras. One of the Central American country’s leading newspapers, Diario Tiempo, which stood out for its defence of democracy during the 2009 coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya, was recently shut down.

The closure of the newspaper is linked to the downfall of one of the most powerful families in the country: the family of banking magnate Jaime Rosenthal, who is accused by the US Treasury Department of laundering money for drug traffickers.

The freezing of the accounts of businesses in the family’s Grupo Continental conglomerate, as a result of that accusation, led to the closure of the newspaper, announced in October. As a result, the government was accused of taking disproportionate measures against the outspoken publication.

In a public letter, Rosenthal said, “The circumstances that led to this suspension are very serious with regard to freedom of speech, social communication and democracy in our country, to the extreme that this is an atypical case in the Western world.”

A newspaper with a similar name, in Argentina, is an example of the other side of the coin in the region. Last April 25, journalists from Tiempo Argentino, a Buenos Aires daily that closed down in late 2015, relaunched the publication, this time as a weekly.

Under the slogan “the owners of our own words”, the Tiempo Argentino reporters got their jobs back by forming a cooperative, similar to the format used by factory workers to get bankrupt companies operating again after Argentina’s severe 2001-02 economic crisis.

“It’s really good to see that the more people organise, the more the competition between companies is overcome,” said Cecilia Gonzalez, a correspondent for the Notimex agency in the countries of Latin America’s Southern Cone region.

But Gonzalez said that in Argentina there are plenty of problems as well, and few positive answers like Tiempo Argentino. One of the big problems was President Mauricio Macri’s modification by decree of a law pushed through by his leftist predecessor in 2015 that outlawed monopolies by media companies.

Macri, who took office last December, told the IACHR that he would draft a new law with input from civil society. But reporters in Argentina are sceptical.

“Besides the more than 300 media outlets owned by the Grupo Clarin and which it will avoid losing, another monopoly is being built in the shadows, associated with La Nacion, and they plan to get hold of the entire chain of magazines,” the Orsai magazine wrote.

As journalists in the region got ready for World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3, there were signs of resistance in some countries, although the climate is not the best for media workers.

One example is Veracruz, the Mexican state that has been in the international headlines for the alarming number of reporters who have been assaulted or killed.

On April 28, the fourth anniversary of the murder of Regina Martinez, a correspondent for the local weekly Proceso, journalists belonging to the Colectivo Voz Alterna, who have battled hard in defence of the right to inform, in the midst of a climate of terror, placed a plaque in her honour in the central square of the state capital.

“We cannot forget, and we cannot just do nothing,” said Veracruz reporter Norma Trujillo. Similar sentiments are voiced by reporters working in dangerous conditions around the region.

Third World Resurgence

Next article – Dingo

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