Risky Business: Press Perils Mar Latin America Freedom

Article excerpt

Democracy's rebirth in Latin America has done little for journalists like Gustavo Gorriti.

The investigative reporter was forced to flee Peru in 1992 because of his stories on rights abuses in the military's campaign against guerrillas. Now that he is based in Panama, his news-grabbing scoops - including reports on alleged drug-trade money flowing into President Ernesto Perez Balladares's campaign - have led officials to seek his expulsion by Aug. 29.

His plight shows how one element of democracy - a free press - falters when journalists are threatened. And in Latin America, such threats are still very real: * Last month, in a border town in Sonora, a crusading Mexican editor was riddled with machine-gun fire as he entered the paper he founded. Benjamin Flores Gonzalez died, it seems, for his reports on Sonora's drug traffickers and the government and military protection they enjoy. * In June, Colombian guerrillas informed the press that they will target as "military objectives" any journalists they consider favorable toward "militaristic" candidates in upcoming elections this year and next. * In January, a young Argentine photographer for the Buenos Aires weekly Noticias was tied up and killed, his body and car then burned alongside an estuary. Jose Luis Cabezas's apparent crime: seeking to inform Noticias readers of police corruption. With Mexico's monopoly-breaking elections last month, Latin America continues to celebrate its transition from military dictatorships to democracy. But even as the celebrating goes on, the region finds itself shaken by one of the darker down sides accompanying its transition: threats to press freedom. Democracy's front line On the front line of democracy's advance, the press finds itself in confrontation with forces threatened by the development of true pluralistic democracies, experts say. The press in Latin America is freer and more robust than a decade ago, they say, but the violence it faces is growing. "The problem for the press in Mexico and throughout Latin America is an asymmetry in the growth of democratic institutions," says Sergio Aguayo, a Mexico City political analyst and human rights advocate. "In the vanguard are the press and human rights organizations. But they confront institutions that maintain an authoritarian mindset, or that are even deeply involved in illicit activities like drug trafficking," he says. An increasingly vocal press "is going to face heightened dangers in a time of transition like this." Mexican writer Jorge Castaneda says killings of journalists "touch a terribly fragile fiber of Latin America's precarious democratic existence." Since 1988, 173 journalists have been killed in Latin America, according to the Washington-based Interamerican Press Society. That's almost one-third of the 600 journalists that the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontieres says have been killed worldwide in the last 10 years. The high degree of impunity affecting journalist killings makes the situation worse. "Of those 600 killings, 95 percent were never punished, and most simply went uninvestigated," says Robert Menard, secretary-general of Reporters sans Frontieres. "With odds like that and with a probing press pushing to look into very powerful interests, why should the violence stop?" Though motives often remain unclear in the absence of any real investigation by authorities, most journalist killings in Latin America appear to have one of two roots: investigating either official corruption or drug trafficking. …