Freedom House Presents ... Fragile Progress, Rising Threats: Press Freedom and Politics in Latin America

Article excerpt

Viewed from a long-term perspective, Latin America's democratic development over the past few decades has been a remarkable triumph. Throughout the region, military juntas and corrupt strongmen have given way to democratically elected presidents. In most countries, these leaders have emerged from a freewheeling political atmosphere to one featuring vibrant civil societies, open political debate, and a healthy democratic foundation that has led to improved government accountability. This progress, however, stands counterpoised to well-known shortcomings ranging from high crime rates and entrenched corruption to excessive presidential power and severe inequality.

The status of the news media is emblematic of the region's democratic shadows and lights. In most countries basic norms of free expression are well established, but various factors continue to prevent the media from truly fulfilling their roles as disseminators of information and independent watchdogs. According to the results of the annual Freedom I louse media analysis, Freedom of the Press, the situation in many countries has deteriorated over the last decade. Indeed, Latin America has slipped further than any other region. Because analysis of Freedom House numbers has shown that pressure on independent media often serves as a harbinger of broader strains on democratic rights, it is important to evaluate the legal, political, and economic factors driving the current trend.

The tension between the reasonably strong base of freedom of expression and the many threats it faces is reflected in the "Partly Free" designation that most Latin American states receive in Freedom of the Press. Whereas only three states--Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay--registered ratings of "Free" in 2009 and only Cuba and Venezuela were assessed as "Not Free," a total of 15 states were categorized as "Partly Free," a designation that includes all states scoring between 31 and 60 on the survey's 100-point scale, where zero represents the best and 100 the worst possible score. Troublingly, the trajectory is unequivocal: the average score has declined sharply since 2002, with the region's 20 nations (all the Spanish-speaking countries plus Brazil and Haiti) moving from an average of 40.5 in 2002 to 49.4 in 2010. Developments in all three of the press freedom analysis' components--the legal and economic categories (30 potential points each), and the political category (up to 40 points)--play an important part in the current downward trend.

The Political Environment

The political category, where the most dramatic problems occur, is also the area of greatest deterioration since 2002. Freedom House defines the political category as encompassing issues including editorial pressure by the government, censorship and self-censorship, and extralegal intimidation of and violence against journalists. The specific indicator that tends to dominate headlines is physical attacks, which are intended to silence individual reporters while also sending a message about the boundaries of future coverage.

Although violence against journalists is nothing new in the region, the wave of physical aggression in many countries in recent years coincides with a more general rise in violent crime that has exposed widespread, profound deficiencies in the ability of states to maintain the rule of law. It is important to note, however, that in the region as a whole, the single most common trigger for threats and physical attacks against journalists remains reporting on government corruption, with state and local officials proving the most frequent sources of intimidation. In Peru and Brazil, each of which registers scores of incidents of aggression against journalists each year, drug cartels or other identifiable organized crime groups trail far behind local officials on the list of probable culprits. Given the frequently circumscribed independence of local-level police, prosecutors, and judges, impunity is a major problem in these cases. …