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How the Latin American Press is Losing its Voice

By Robert Valencia

The news channel Globovisión, the last Venezuelan television station critical of the late President Hugo Chávez and his socialism-driven Bolivarian Revolution, announced on March 11 that an insurance company owner with ties to Chávez’s ruling party was purchasing the broadcaster. The channel’s staff says they expect a Chavismo-friendly editorial board. Carlos Zuloaga, Globovisión’s vice president, explained in a letter written in Spanish that after the defeat of the opposition in the October 2012 presidential elections, “we were harassed politically, legally, and economically. Twenty percent of the channel’s assets were confiscated by Chavista sympathizers, forcing us to sell Globovisión to the ‘Bolivarians’.” The announcement stirred outcry from civil liberties advocates who accused the Chavistas of strangling Globovisión with draconian regulatory measures.

To make matters worse, Ecuador proposed on March 13 that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) system abolish its ability to sanction its 18 member countries, which also includes the system’s Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression. Should Ecuador get its wish, freedom of the press in Latin America is in severe danger as that ability was the region's best tool.

The IACHR has defended the freedom of press from authoritarian governments or any belligerent actors since 1960. In 2007, the IACHR concluded that the Chávez administration failed to protect and punish acts of intimidation against journalists who belonged to Globovisión and Radio Caracas Televisión, another defunct TV channel critical of Chávez. With the threat of sanctions, decisions like these have some bite. Chávez called the head of IACHR “pure excrement” and denounced the IACHR. Venezuela remained a member state and narrowly avoided sanctions. The threat of economic repercussions made the IAHCR a bloc worth dealing with.

During a five-hour meeting of the signatories of the American Convention on Human Rights (the San Jose Pact) in Guayaquil, Ecuador, President Rafael Correa argued that the ability to impose sanctions should be restricted to the Inter-American Court, because the IACHR is located in and influenced by the United States, which, according to Correa, wants to wield its power over left-leaning countries. Though this decision will be determined on March 22, several countries such as Argentina and Nicaragua have backed Correa’s move to weaken the human rights group.

With the adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1948, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) is the main human rights organ of the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS is the world’s oldest regional organization that seeks to foster political dialogue, cooperation, and a hemispheric-wide judicial system.

Multiple Latin American countries have been accused of having a tight grip on the press. Ecuador, which is spearheading the initiative to overhaul the IACHR, is particularly infamous. In 2011, Ecuador passed defamation provisions in its criminal court, imposing million-dollar fines on any media criticism of the Correa administration. In 2011, a judge in the Guayas province fined El Universo, a leading Ecuadorian news outlet, $40 million and issued an arrest warrant for four journalists in light of an op-ed that criticized Rafael Correa’s reaction to a coup against him in 2010. Though these charges were lifted, Correa let up on the press.  A 2012 report from Human Rights Watch warns that Ecuador' s constitutional reforms could “significantly increase government powers to constrain media.”

Correa also proposed that the IACHR headquarters be moved from Washington D.C. to Argentina, another country with a dubious record of freedom of the press. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner passed the Audiovisual Communication Act of 2010 that dictates the functionality of broadcast media. The law substantially restricted the work of large newspapers like Clarín and La Nación, and curbed the renewal of cable and satellite providers that belonged to the Clarín Group. The law limits the number of licenses any one media outlet can hold  and it regulates what content must be broadcast. Though some claim the new law is meant to increase plurality of voices, many see it as a direct assault on one of its main critics. The Inter-American Press Association has accused Ecuador and Argentina of anti-democratic practices against media, reducing the number of independent voices that are critical of their respective governments.

The state of the media in Latin America is not homogenous. Each country has a unique situation, and some media outlets have it harder than others. In 2012, the IACHR reported 148 terrorist attacks against members of the press in Mexico, of which seven were killed. Most of them are killed by organized crime, but the organization has pressured the Mexican government to better protect journalists. Five journalists were murdered in Brazil, and three journalists have been killed in Honduras and Colombia, respectively, during the same year. The Inter-American Democratic Charter of 2001 states that a pluralistic democracy champions the freedom of the press and expression. Reducing the ability to ensure press freedom and a diversity of voices does not bode well in a region that aims to be socially inclusive and well informed.

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Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

[Photo courtesy of OEA-OAS.]

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