How Governments Threaten Press Freedom in Latin America

PHOTO: A giant banner that hangs from a government building in Buenos Aires, says that Clarin, one of the country?s top newspapers, ?lies.?

Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

One of the greatest threats to press freedom in Latin America comes in the form of shady criminal groups like Mexican drug cartels or Colombian paramilitaries who harass and sometimes murder journalists that report on their activities.

Increasingly, however, a new threat is emerging in the hemisphere. It comes in the form of democratically elected officials. These politicians, who wear suave suits and carry no guns, are using their power to clamp down on media critics.

Think about Venezuela, for example, where an exaggerated spate of fines against the opposition-friendly channel Globovision forced its owner to sell the channel to a businessman with government ties.

Or take a look at Ecuador where an editor for the country's biggest newspaper, El Universo, had to flee the country after a judge threatened to jail him for libeling that country's president.

Another prominent target of this state-led offensive against free speech is Argentina's Clarin Group, a media conglomerate that has been battling that country's government since 2008.

Clarin owns Argentina's most influential newspaper, called Clarin, as well as Channel 13, a public access TV station that runs a popular investigative journalism program, called "Periodismo Para Todos."

On Monday, the editor-in-chief of the Clarin newspaper, Ricardo Kirschbaum, sent an email to his colleagues abroad where he suggested that the government wanted to take control of the company.

"This intervention has still not been enacted," the message read. "But I want you to be alert as there are insistent rumors that this arbitrary decision shall be adopted [shortly]."

Kirschbaum suspects that the Argentine government might try to shake things up at Clarin by implementing a new law that allows the government to take over a publicly traded company for up to six months if that company is being "mismanaged."

Clarin is a publicly traded company that sells its shares in the Buenos Aires Stock Market. So theoretically the government could build a case against Clarin that would enable it to take the reigns of the company.

Journalists in Argentina have explained that this sort of a move would enable the government to change some of the members on Clarin's board of directors. That, in turn, would allow them to make decisions on content produced by the company, like canceling the investigative show, Periodismo Para Todos.

Government officials say then have no intention of doing this, with Argentina's Interior Minister describing such theories as "a big lie." Argentina's government also says that the media isn't being censored.

But Clarin does have some reason to be worried about its future. Ever since the media group opposed government plans to increase taxes on agricultural exports it has faced a series of unusual attacks from officials who seem intent on discrediting the company and breaking it up.

In 2009, for example, the government used its congressional majority to draft a new media law that would force Clarin to sell off several of its assets, including a cable TV provider that makes much of the company's income.

Government supporters said that they only wanted to democratize media ownership in Argentina, arguing that TV channels, radio stations and newspapers in the country are currently owned by just a handful of companies.

The media law has been held up by courts, which are still debating if it is constitutional. But in the meantime, the government also had 200 tax inspectors raid the Clarin newspaper's offices in an unprecedented effort to go through the company's books and search for violations for which the paper could be fined.

That was not the only threat against Clarin since the media law was drafted. At public events and in their offices, Argentine government officials regularly distribute T-shirts, socks, coffee mugs and other merchandise that is stamped with the words "Clarin Lies." It has also been reported that Argentine officials have warned large retail chains like Walmart not to advertise in Clarin and other Buenos Aires newspapers that criticize the government.

Some experts in Latin American politics argue that this sort of confrontation between the media and the state is most prevalent in countries that have elected populist left-wing governments, like Venezuela and Argentina. In those countries, much of the media happens to be owned by large corporations that oppose socialist reforms.

"The perception of radical left-wing governments is that they have an enemy within, which is intent on bringing them down," said Ivan Briscoe, an expert in Latin American Politics and formerly a journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald. "They can invoke a certain amount of evidence for that," Briscoe added, pointing out that in Venezuela, for example, several TV channels gave favorable coverage to a coup attempt against Hugo Chávez.

Carlos Lauría, the Americas director at the International Committee to Protect Journalists, argues that this heightened confrontation between the media and the state prevents citizens from getting accurate information on important issues like inflation, crime or the economy.

Clarin journalists in Argentina, for example, have almost no access to high-level government officials, due to the current climate of confrontation between both groups. And the government in that country hides inflation statistics from the press in general, in an effort to avoid criticism.

Briscoe says that the intense confrontation between Clarin and the government of Argentina, has led to a situation where nothing positive about the government and its policies is published on Clarin.

He says that this tendency is not good for journalism just like its not good for a state-run media outlet to only say positive things about the government.

But in spite of their shortcomings, Briscoe says there is a crucial reason to allow Clarin and other privately owned media companies to operate.

Journalists at these companies are allowed to criticize the government.

"Private companies allow individual reporters to do their own thing, as long as it attracts an audience," Briscoe said. "State-run corporations don't let people do that and that's the difference. They're interested in political control and not in money."

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