Do you know that it’s World Press Freedom Day today?
The media are so often taken for granted or made into the punching bag for whatever complaints we have. But just pause for a second, and imagine what the U.S. would be like without reporters. You can’t. The press is essential for a healthy democracy—to expose corruption, fight against abuses, give a voice to the voiceless, and to share information and ideas in an open manner, regardless of socioeconomic level or political bias. But what’s the status of U.S. media today?
Many say that U.S. reporters are giving a sweet deal to President Obama and that his honeymoon isn’t over yet.
We all know the danger of sleeping journalists (i.e., an Iraq war based on fabricated information).
It’s not just a complacent U.S. press that threatens its freedom and quality—the financial upheavals and cutbacks at news organizations in the U.S. also undermine a free press. One of the heavy costs has been that today there are fewer journalists to cover issues at home and abroad.
When news organizations close the number of bureaus, and staffers, placed in the Andes, Southern Cone, Mexico and Central America/Caribbean, coverage suffers. Not to mention the suffering of reporters who already feel stretched.
In that light, three cheers to the ongoing rise of online news and bloggers. (So, buy your friendly unpaid news blogger dinner and a drink, because he or she probably cannot afford to!)
Beyond financial constraints, reporters in too many countries face much greater challenges: threat or reality of incarceration, intimidation, physical assault, and murder.
One particular noteworthy improvement is Colombia—traditionally a very difficult country for journalists to operate in, according to the “2009 Impunity Index” report by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The report notes that there hasn’t been a work-related killing since 2006. Prosecutors have even “won important recent convictions.” The Colombian government credits increased security, but CPJ found that “pervasive self-censorship has made the press less of a target.” Sixteen of the 20 murders over the last decade have not been solved, perhaps a lesson that has taught reporters to muzzle themselves. But, intimidation still persists.
One place that isn’t improving is Cuba. It is a tragic, terrible stain on this hemisphere and the world. After China, it is the second-highest jailer of journalists. At least 21 journalists are behind bars, including 20 who were arrested in March 2003 during the “Black Spring” crackdown on reporters and others believed to be critics of the government, according to the CPJ.
In this journal and blog, people have written about the importance of a free press to democracy. Common sense would say that as a democracy advances, the media advance in its function to expose government abuses and press for fair laws.
Mexico, however, contradicts such rational.
The end of 71-year rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000 saw greater freedom for the media in many ways. The election of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) and other PAN officials helped disrupt the PRI’s monopoly of the media. The “Sunshine laws,” or freedom of information act, passed during the Fox administration, allows reporters access to government documents.
Though Mexico has become more democratic, free press and free speech are not making strides. Journalists face greater danger, and their assailants too often get away with murder. Such impunity and violence undermine the press. Since 2000, 24 journalists have been killed, and since 2005, seven journalists have disappeared.
A violent turf war between powerful drug cartels and against Mexican authorities has unleashed widespread violence, sending a message to anyone who gets in their way, or tries to uncover (or cover) what they’re up to. Cartels have waged a terrifying campaign against the media to make sure their message gets across.
Human heads are sent to media offices as a warning. Reporters have disappeared—or worse—after failing to heed to demands about covering criminal activities or doing serious investigative reporting. Veteran crime reporters are top targets, especially in states where cartels are most powerful.
But some brave journalists refuse to listen…and pay the price.
In November 2008, an unidentified assailant shot Armando Rodríguez at least eight times, as he sat with his young daughter in a car parked in his driveway in Ciudad Juárez. Rodríguez was a veteran crime reporter for the local daily El Diario. The motive for his shooting is still unknown.
Alfredo Corchado, a 2009 Neiman Fellow at Harvard University, is the award-winning Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. Corchado has witnessed the impact of narcoviolence on the media—and the growing culture of fear that is invading the newsroom. The impunity is chilling reporters into silence. According to Corchado, “Media members self-censor themselves to survive.”
“Many reporters, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border, are now limited to reporting on body counts. Investigations are rare. Even reporters in Mexico City now withhold bylines on ‘snsitive stories’ for fear of reprisal from members of organized crime.” Corchado wrote in the Neiman Watchdog newsletter on April 9, 2009.
More reporters covering Iraq and other war zones are going to Mexico. CNN”s Michael Ware is a recent example.
As Corchado knows, American (or Australian) journalists are not safe from vengeful drug thugs. Being a Westerner is not protection in itself. Like Ware, many reporters now often “parachute” into a town for limited amount of time, try to get the story, and then move on to safety. Or, try to get the story over the phone.
Corchado’s newspaper once had bureaus in Monterrey, El Paso and San Antonio—with 13 staffers throughout Mexico. Now, the paper is down to just the Mexico bureau chief, Corchado.
This pretty much sums up what’s going on in the U.S. news business.
But with more U.S. treasury and treasure spent on the drug war, media coverage of the border has never been more significant for the hemisphere. So, as we commemorate World Press Freedom day, let’s be sure to recognize how far the press has come without losing sight of the many challenges still being faced everyday.
*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: email@example.com.