Violence against the Press in Latin America: Protections and Remedies in International Law

Article excerpt

This article identifies a trend in international law addressing the murders of journalists in Latin America. Recent cases by international human-rights tribunals are analyzed for their holdings that murders of journalists violate the free-expression guarantees of the American Convention on Human Rights, the hemisphere's leading human rights treaty. These rulings required governments to investigate attacks on the press in good faith, punish journalists' assailants, indemnify journalists' survivors, and protect journalists working in war zones. This article concludes that this international case law, though developing slowly, offers a new weapon in the fight against vengeful and violent attacks on the press.

Literature Review

In 1999 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government of Guatemala to pay $161,000 to the family of North American journalist Nicholas Blake, who was killed by Guatemalan security forces in 1985. The award was compensation for expenses and injuries suffered by the Blake family as a result of the Guatemalan government's intentional efforts to cover up its role in Blake's murder, which occurred during an intensive period of Guatemala's long civil war.

The Inter-American Court's decision is more than justice for a murdered journalist's survivors, though. The Blake case is one of just three cases, all decided since 1997, in the inter-American system for human rights protection inwhich violence against journalists was viewed as a human rights violation. This article proposes that when these three cases are considered together they represent an emerging international jurisprudence in the western hemisphere that demands government responsibility and accountability for violence against the press in Latin America, where nearly all countries have ratified the western hemisphere's leading human-rights treaty, the American Convention on Human Rights.

Violence against Latin American journalists has been an issue for studies of the region's press systems at least since Gardner's examination of the Guatemalan press in 1971.1 Since that time, the risks to journalists in Latin America and the impact of violent attacks on the Latin American press have been well documented in research by human-rights organizations dedicated to the safety of journalists, by professionally oriented trade groups and think tanks, and by academics studying the region's press.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that between 1989 and 1998 nearly one-fourth- 117- of the 472 journalists killed worldwide were killed in Latin America.2 CPJ documented that six journalists were killed in Latin America in 19993 and seven in 2000.4 For 2000, CPJ was investigating murders of another seven journalists in Latin America where the motives were not clearly tied to the victims' work.5 In 1998, CPJ identified Colombia as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists to work in because four journalists were killed there;6 in 2000 Colombia, still the most dangerous country in Latin America for journalists, tied Russia and Sierra Leone-with three murdered journalists each-as the countries with the most journalists killed in the world.7

The Inter-American Press Association documented that between 1988 and 1998 in Latin America, 202 journalists were murdered, 87 were kidnapped, and 1,731 were assaulted in the course of their professional work. IAPA also reported that for the same time period there were 250 violent attacks on media offices or property.8

The International Federation of Journalists reported that ten of the thirty-seven journalists that the group documented as murdered in 2000 were killed in Latin America.9 Of the thirty-one journalists murdered worldwide in 1998, as documented by the IFJ, twenty-two of those occurred in Latin America: ten in Colombia, six in Mexico, three in Brazil, two in Peru, and one in Guatemala.10 In 1999, IFJ reported fifty journalists killed, eight of them in Latin America. …