Latin media leaders say organized crime in Mexico, government censors elsewhere big threats

E. EDUARDO CASTILLO (Associated Press) | November 10, 2010

MERIDA, Mexico — Latin American media leaders debated Tuesday what poses the greatest threat to journalists in the region — government censorship or organized crime. Their conclusion: Both.

After a four-day assembly that included a speech by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, members of the Inter American Press Association issued a report citing the dual concerns and stressing its mission to maintain democratic principles and people’s right to know.

Robert Rivard, chairman of the committee on freedom of the press and information, said at a news conference that journalism is most at risk in Mexico, where many small newspapers in the northern border region have stopped covering drug-gang violence after their journalists were threatened or killed.

At least 11 journalists have been slain this year in Mexico, which has become the most dangerous country for the news media, said the press association, known as IAPA. Four reporters in Honduras and two in Brazil also have been killed in the past six months, the association said.

“The reality is that in Mexico there is a climate of impunity that has not changed,” said Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News in Texas. “Mexico remains the main problem for the IAPA in the Americas.”

Rivard acknowledged that Calderon has shown a willingness to offer protection and make crimes against journalists a federal offense. But threats still exist, he said.

Gonzalo Marroquin, head of the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre who was elected IAPA’s president Tuesday, added that the best defense against drug violence — in Mexico and other countries — is a unified news media.

“But that is not observed in Mexico,” he said.

Others argued that government attempts to repress independent media represent the top threat to Latin American news media.

“However painful (the slayings) are, what is worse are the persistent policies of governments that attack the press,” said the editor of the Uruguayan newspaper Search, Claudio Paolillo.

In the end, the association concluded both were serious concerns.

“Threats, intimidation and deadly attacks by organized crime that have claimed the lives of 14 journalists this semester have dominated the agenda at the 66th General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association,” the IAPA’s report said.

But it added that “more than 575 IAPA members from throughout the hemisphere also engaged in an intense debate focused on Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Argentina, where governments are employing a range of antidemocratic measures to repress the independent media and place the flow of news and information in the hands of state-controlled entities.”

The report cited an official campaign in Argentina that included insults and attempts to punish editors and journalists by canceling licenses, and a law in Bolivia intended to target racism that also threatens the news media’s independence.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said his country’s law, which can levy fines and suspend licenses of media outlets that disseminate content deemed discriminatory, is intended to fight racism against the poor Indian majority.

IAPA members also called on the government of Ecuador to respect press freedoms, after President Rafael Correa ordered private TV stations to air the government channel during a September uprising by the national police.

Cuba has imprisoned at least eight independent journalists along with other political prisoners “whose only crime is opposition to the Castro regime,” the report said.

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