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
Mexican writer Jorge Castaneda says killings of journalists
"touch a terribly fragile fiber of Latin America's precarious
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. …