No sooner had Cuban President Raúl Castro returned to Havana from Chile, where he was sworn in as the new president of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC), than Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders—RSF) repeated his own words back to him. The French-based NGO released a letter Monday urging the Cuban leader to release journalists currently held in Cuban prisons and called on Castro to reject, in Cuba, the “aggression, threats and use of force” he mentioned during his CELAC acceptance speech.
During the CELAC summit, Castro had said he had “total respect for international law and the United Nations Charter.” In response, RSF requested “that these undertakings quickly be given concrete expression in your own country.”
RSF applauded Cuba’s migration law reforms, which took effect on January 14. “It means that Cubans who want to travel abroad no longer need an exit permit and are guaranteed the right to return,” the group said, though they demanded that the new reforms be applied to all citizens without distinction, including dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, who recently obtained a passport. RSF said that Sánchez “must be allowed to return at the end of the regional trip she plans to begin soon.”
“The door should also be open for all the journalists and dissidents who want to come back after being forced into exile, and for all those in Cuba who would now like to travel,” RSF said.
After a massive demonstration on November 8, Argentines planned to take to the streets again Thursday night to protest the enforcement of a new media law scheduled to go into full effect today. In the end, a subway strike, torrential rains and a toxic gas cloud significantly reduced enthusiasm and left the streets of Buenos Aires mostly empty, save for some small scores of pot-banging citizens.
Nevertheless, the day ended largely as a victory for those opposing the Kirchner government's controversial 2009 media law. A court ruled in favor of Grupo Clarín, the largest media conglomerate in Argentina, effectively protecting it from the forcible sale of an important part of its licenses.
The court ruling last night established that Grupo Clarín’s licenses cannot be sold until the Supreme Court can rule on the constitutionality of articles 45 and 161, which limit the amount of licenses companies can hold and establish a divestment procedure for companies who hold more than 24 cable television licenses and 10 open frequency radio or television licenses. The Argentine government claims Grupo Clarín has over 200 licenses; Grupo Clarín says the number is 158.
The government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner today filed an appeal to last night's ruling before the Supreme Court, making use of a special per saltum procedure to bypass the lower courts. Depending on the Supreme Court's acceptance of the appeal and subsequent ruling, Grupo Clarín and other media groups may still have to comply with the new media law before the court can rule on the constitutionality of articles 45 and 161. That judgment would also be open to appeal. Since neither side in the current conflict is expected to back down, the current legal battle will likely continue.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa traveled to Argentina on Monday to receive an award from the Universidad de la Plata in La Plata, Argentina, recognizing his contributions to freedom of expression in Ecuador.
The U.S. government has long criticized Correa’s record on freedom of speech, and granted political asylum to the Ecuadorian journalist Emilio Palacio in August after he faced a three-year prison sentence and a $40 million fine for referring to Correa as a “dictator” in El Universo.
Facing pressure from press freedom groups, Correa eventually pardoned Palacio and other executives who had received prison sentences. The U.S. offered asylum to Palacio just 24 hours after Ecuador granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its embassy in London, who published a series of classified U.S. government cables on his website.
Receipt of the award prompted the Ecuadorian president to again defend his record with the press. “It turns out that there’s such a lack of free expression in Ecuador that one of the most important universities in Latin America has awarded the president a prize for fighting for true freedom of expression and democratization of the media,” Correa said on Saturday.
The award, in the category “Presidente Latinoamericano por la Comunicación Popular” (Latin American President for Popular Communication), will be delivered Tuesday at the Facultad de Periodismo y Comunicación. It is not the first controversial prize that the Universidad de la Plata has awarded to a Latin American head of state: in 2011, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez collected the same award.
The use of social media is rising around the world, but as government restrictions on traditional Venezuelan media tighten, professional journalists and citizen reporters are increasingly turning to social media, especially Twitter, to transmit and track the news.
Venezuela has about 2 million Twitter users, or about 8 percent of the population. That gives Venezuela the highest Twitter penetration in the region after Uruguay, according to local research company Tendencias Digitales.
“The government tries to silence bad news, and that’s why social networks are now playing a big role,” said Luisa Torrealba, coordinator of the Venezuelan branch of the Institute for Press and Society. “They are an escape valve to allow people to learn what’s going on.”
Or, as Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Caracas daily El Nacional, said: “With so much self-censorship in Venezuela, Twitter represents freedom of expression.” Often, Venezuelans pass on information and learn about events, such as power outages and oil spills that the government is not eager to publicize through Twitter, Facebook posts and blogs.
But the government is also using social media to promote its agenda and to attack its critics. President Hugo Chávez Frías’ Twitter account now has more than 3 million followers, while his ministers regularly announce new measures via Twitter. More ominously, prominent journalists and opinion leaders have had their Twitter accounts hacked, in many cases by a mysterious pro-government group called N33.
Sería realmente alentador, además de novedoso, que llegara una celebración del Día Mundial de la Libertad de Prensa sin malas noticias para el gremio. Pues este 3 de mayo no logró ser la excepción, ya que además de repasar las cifras que no ceden en lo que a violaciones a la libertad de expresión se refiere (Reporteros sin Fronteras (RSF) dijo que ya van 21 comunicadores asesinados en 2012 y que las FARC y las Águilas Negras siguen siendo predadores de la libertad de prensa en Colombia), desde hace seis días es incierta la suerte del reportero francés Romeo Langlois, freelance para la cadena France 24 y el diario Le Figaro en el país.
La historia es así: Langlois se fue con el Ejército colombiano a cubrir una operación antinarcóticos en Unión Peneya, un sector del municipio Montañitas de Caquetá, al sur del país. Un municipio, dicho sea de paso, que hizo parte de la zona de distensión que en el gobierno de Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) se despejó para que las FARC tuvieran diálogos con el gobierno y que en últimas terminó siendo un fortín para que la guerrilla se vigorizara y la anhelada paz se diluyera así como la confianza en la salida negociada al conflicto que, lamentablemente, ha sido difícil de recuperar pese a los connotados esfuerzos de la sociedad civil. Hoy día Unión Peneya es uno de esos rincones del país donde la presencia del Estado parece un chiste bogotano, lo que facilita que la guerrilla maneje todo el ciclo de producción de la cocaína a través de milicias armadas.
El grupo de soldados con el que iba Langlois cayó en una emboscada de la guerrilla de las FARC que al final dejó cuatro muertos, pese a que los reportes irresponsables iniciales, compartidos por un general del Ejército a través de Twitter, hablaban de 15, mientras algunos medios, quien sabe basados en qué fuente hablaban de hasta 20 fallecidos. (Entre otras cosas, flaco favor le hace a la libertad de prensa dar partes oficiales apresurados en zona de guerra.) Los heridos confirmados fueron siete, mientras la suerte del reportero todavía sigue siendo materia de confusión: el gobierno colombiano dice que cesará acciones militares en la zona en cuestión y emprenderá un rescate si el gobierno francés lo autoriza; el secretariado de la guerrilla no confirma ni niega la versión de una supuesta vocera del frente XV de las FARC que se atribuyó el plagio; el gobierno francés está seguro de que es un secuestro; el gobierno brasileño ofrece mediación; la Organización de Estados Americanos, la Organización de las Naciones Unidas, y la Unión Europea condenan el hecho e instan a las FARC a liberarlo.
Mientras todos sus colegas nos unimos al clamor por su libertad, el caso fue el punto de partida para reflexionar sobre el ejercicio que realizamos los reporteros en zona de guerra. Sobre todo en un país como Colombia donde el conflicto hace rato que se cubre desde los escritorios y solo algunos valientes van al lugar de los hechos, generalmente viajando como es el caso de Langlois, con alguna unidad militar. Es el término llamado embedded journalism acuñado desde que los periodistas norteamericanos se montaron en los convoys militares que llegaban a la Guerra de Iraq en 2003. Es a veces la única opción para llegar a ciertos “teatros de operaciones” a los que los medios no se le miden a enviar periodistas por su cuenta, por miedos legítimos, restricciones financieras, desinterés, o inexperiencia.
From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Chile Proposes New Tax Code to Fund Education
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera introduced a bill to Congress on Monday to reform the country’s tax code. The new tax code raises corporate income tax and sales taxes, but lowers income taxes across the board. It also permits families to write off 50 percent of the cost of education on their tax returns. The reform further progressively eliminates import duties—currently at 6 percent—over the next three years. Piñera said the reforms should raise between $700 million and $1 billion a year to be used to fund education and government scholarships. CIPER Chile calls the government’s reform “regressive,” saying a tax cut for the rich while raising sales taxes for everyone is “unjust.”
Bolivia Nationalizes Electrical Grid
On May 1, President Evo Morales announced that Bolivia would take over the country’s electrical grid Transportadora de Electricidad, currently operated by Spanish company Red Electrica Corps. Morales ascribed the move to underinvestment in the sector and a need for government control of electricity.
Brazilian Supreme Court Rules Racial Quotas are Legal
The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that racial quotas for university admissions are constitutional. The justices said such measures were necessary in order to guarantee the advancement of Afro-Brazilians and correct past injustices against black citizens. However, two judges expressed reservations, urging the court to consider more specific criteria than race such as socio-economic status. “No one has the power to say who is white and who is black in a highly mixed society,” one justice said.
Any crackdown on media freedom is harmful to democracy in any country at any time. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez' abuse of power is particularly egregious since the ongoing and intensifying crackdown takes place in what is the most important electoral campaign of the last 14 years in Venezuela. Presidential elections are to be held on October 7, 2012.
Hugo Chávez’ biggest efforts to thwart media freedom—in terms of impact on democracy—are threefold. First and most importantly, the inappropriate abuse of the public media spectrum for political gain significantly restricts freedom to equal representation and equal access to the airwaves, including both radio and television in Venezuela.
Second, the long-standing intimidation of private media outlets—heightened in the current electoral season—essentially forces them to: broadcast the government line; curb political discussion altogether; or face the consequences. See the Marta Colomina interview with César Miguel Rondón from earlier this year for anecdotal evidence of this crackdown.
Ecuador’s National Court of Justice upheld a ruling on Thursday that found a columnist and three publishers of the newspaper El Universo guilty of defaming President Rafael Correa. The 2011 opinion column in question, written by chief opinion editor, Emilio Palacio and titled “No a las mentiras” (No more lies), referred to Correa as a “dictator” and criticized his handling of a police revolt in September 2010 involving a hospital full of civilians.
Correa filed suit a year ago against Palacio and El Universal publishers (and brothers) Carlos, César and Nicolás Perez and won the case. The four defendants were ordered to pay Correa $10 million each in damages and serve three years in prison, though no time has been served due to the appeal process. Carlos, who was granted political asylum by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, said yesterday that the verdict “exposed raw corruption in Ecuador’s judicial system” and symbolized “attack on our newspaper and the sacred right of free speech” by Correa.
International human rights and free speech groups joined in the condemnation of the lawsuit, claiming that it stifles free speech and freedom of the press and intimidates political opposition. The Inter-American Press Association described the president's actions as "a systematic and hostile campaign to do away with the independent press." The Committee to Protect Journalists said the ruling against the newspaper is a "setback for democracy in Ecuador.” But Correa, who maintains a 70 percent approval rating, argues that the case is defending Ecuador against dangerous ties between big business and the news media.
A judge in Ecuador ruled Wednesday that the directors and former opinion editor of El Universo newspaper must serve three years in prison and pay $30 million to President Rafael Correa for an opinion article published in February. In addition, the judge ruled that the newspaper must pay Correa a separate $10 million.
In February, President Correa filed libel charges against El Universo directors Carlos Pérez, Nicolas Pérez and César Pérez, as well as then-opinion editor Emilio Palacio, after the newspaper published an opinion article by Palacio entitled “No to Lies.” Correa argued that the piece, in which he is repeatedly referred to as “El Dictador,” unjustly accuses him of ordering security forces to open fire on civilians at the hospital where the president was detained for several hours last fall. Though Correa originally sued for $80 million in damages, he has said he “will not keep one cent” of the money, and that the reason the ruling is important is that it sets a historic precedent, signaling “the beginning of the end of abuses by corrupt press.”
Palacio, who resigned last week from El Universo in hopes that President Correa would drop the charges against him and the newspaper, has said that the president misinterpreted his meaning. “I was not accusing the president, only warning him” that a future opponent could do so, he wrote in a column last Thursday. Palacio plans to appeal the judge’s ruling and says he was not given the opportunity to present evidence in court. El Universo will do the same. In an editorial published yesterday the newspaper said it “rejects this sentence of 80 pages, dictated in record time” and that its lawyers “will exhaust all national and international means of recourse.”
Press freedom advocates have also criticized the ruling. Diego Cornejo, executive director of the Asociación Ecuatoriana de Editores de Periódicos (Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors), said the suit and judge’s decisión could lead to censorship and self-censorship among the press. Gonzalo Marroquín, president of the Inter-American Press Association, called it “a grave hit against the most essential principals of freedom of expression.”
The stunning announcement that Hosni Mubarak was resigning from Egypt’s presidency in response to widespread civil protests—in which the media played no small part—is yet again a reminder of journalism’s democratic purpose. Coupled with AOL’s purchase of The Huffington Post, it also illustrates the rapid changes journalism has undergone of late.
Ideally, a free press serves as one of many checks and balances in the political system, fosters accountability, provides a public forum for diverse voices, and builds an informed citizenry that can participate in the democratic process. It preserves democracy where it exists and even helps to foster democracy where it does not. When obstructed from fulfilling these roles, the media not only fail to advance democratic governance, but can actively undermine it.
But a fundamental question dominates the industry today: How can the media, especially in Latin America, continue to fulfill its essential roles in the face of continuous challenges?
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.