March 26, 2010
IAPA discusses freedom of the press

One by one they mounted the podium, most telling harrowing tales of the conditions under which the media operates in their respective countries.{{more}}

The reports were the worst from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela, prompting the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) to state that violations of freedom of the press are rising in the Western Hemisphere.

The occasion was the mid-year meeting of the IAPA, held from March 19 to 22 in Aruba.

President of the IAPA, Alejandro Aguirre, singled out Cuba as the region’s worst offender against press freedom.

“The most worrisome case continues to be the case of Cuba, where a dictatorship that has lasted nearly half a century has not allowed a minimum of freedom of expression or free press,” Aguirre told the media.

On Monday, the IAPA issued a resolution calling for Cuba to unconditionally release the 26 journalists incarcerated with sentences that vary from one to 28 years in prison. They also condemned government control over the media and for the Cuban authorities to treat foreign correspondents working in Cuba with respect.

Aguirre also condemned what he called efforts by President Hugo Chavez to silence media critics in Venezuela.

Chavez “has used all the government’s tools to close and antagonize the media — doing everything possible so that the flow of information in Venezuela is dictated by the government,” said Aguirre, executive director of the Miami-based Diario de Las Americas.

The IAPA said the process of elimination of the independent news media has included the shutdown of RCTV International, “attacks upon and legal prosecution of journalists” and “financial sabotage of the press, radio and television that are not subordinate to the regime.”

However, after Venezuela’s report was presented to the body, it was strongly challenged by half a dozen persons claiming to represent various groups from Venezuela, some of whom accused the persons preparing the report and the IAPA of being anti-Chavez.

Chavez also denies attempting to silence his critics. He has repeatedly rejected the IAPA’s criticisms in the past, calling the organization a pawn of the “empire,” a reference to the U.S. government.

The situation in Mexico is also alarming, with four journalists having been killed so far this year. The IAPA claims a fifth was recently killed in the border city of Reynosa, but media outlets there were too afraid to file a police report. Twelve reporters were killed in Mexico in 2009.

The IAPA said the lack of justice in crimes against reporters is increasingly driving journalists in Mexico to self-censorship.

In Haiti, the IAPA said the devastating January 12 earthquake crippled the media by destroying outlets’ offices, shutting down businesses that provided advertising revenue and killing 31 journalists. In Port-au-Prince, only about a dozen radio stations out of 50 remain on the air.

The report said the damage to the industry has dramatically limited the dissemination of important humanitarian information.

The editors of two Haitian papers, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, pleaded for help, including printing and training for reporters, from their IAPA colleagues.

Reporting on behalf of the English speaking Caribbean was Vivian Anne Gittens, Chief Executive Officer of the Nation Publishing Company of Barbados. In her report, Gittens made special reference to Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica.

Gittens said while in Barbados there is generally a healthy level of tolerance among newspapers, the governments, businesses and the people, last year, there was “a clash between the Prime Minister’s political consultant and the editor of the Sunday Sun,” the largest circulated newspaper in Barbados. The Sunday Sun is published by the Nation Publishing Company. Gittens said

the editor was threatened that if she did not “display the story about a public opinion poll, as he (the political consultant) determined appropriate, he would ‘embarrass’ and ‘destroy’ her reputation in Barbados.

Gittens said that since then, the Government has “pulled its party’s advertising” and its weekly column because “they perceive the Nation as anti-Government”.

In Guyana, “the use of state advertising to punish and reward the media has continued to be a feature of the Government’s treatment of the media,” Gittens said. She said President Bharrat Jagdeo has also continued to attack media houses and reporters, “thereby creating conditions which could lead to self-censorship and the curbing of media freedoms.”

The Guyanese government has also thus far failed to present the promised Access to Information legislation and legislation for a National Broadcast Authority.

In Jamaica, journalists are concerned about the lack of urgency that is displayed by the Jamaican legislature in debating “a report recommending the reform of Jamaica’s archaic libel and defamation laws.” Journalists are agitating for the removal of libel as a criminal offence, the lowering of the bar to make malice the only defence by public officials, and the determination of damages by judges rather than a jury. They are also calling for the abolition of the Official Secrets Act, which contradicts the release of information from the civil service under the Access to Information Act.

In addition to Gittens, the other delegates from the English speaking Caribbean were Dawn Thomas, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Caribbean Communications Network Ltd, publishers of the Trinidad Express, and Clare Keizer, CEO of Interactive Media Ltd., publishers of Searchlight.

The IAPA, which has its headquarters in Miami, is a group of 1300 publishers, of mainly newspapers, in the Americas.