International - Leaders at Ibero-American summit urged to defend press freedom



    MONTREAL, Nov. 7 /CNW Telbec/ - Reporters Without Borders hopes that
basic freedoms, especially free expression, will be discussed at the 18th
Ibero-American summit, a three-day meeting of heads of state and government
from Latin America, Spain and Portugal that begins tomorrow in the Chilean
capital of Santiago with the official theme of "Social cohesion and public
policies for fairer societies."
    The summit's discussions will concern societies marked by a high degree
of ideological polarisation and unequal access to public media and to
information. The press freedom organisation urges its participants to jointly
commit to editorial freedom and diversity of views, and even to consider
harmonising their press legislation as part of the drive for regional
integration.

    Violence and impunity

    There has been no letup in the shocking level of violence against the
media and impunity for those who murder journalists. Mexico and Colombia have
held on to their position as the western hemisphere's most dangerous countries
for the press.
    In Mexico, the 33 murders and seven disappearances of journalists since
2000 have never resulted in anyone being convicted. At least half of these
journalists were killed for showing too much interest in drug trafficking,
contraband or corruption.
    They include Alfredo Jiménez Mota of the Hermosillo-based daily
El Imparcial, missing since 2 April 2005, Razl Gibb Guerrero, the editor of
the daily La Opinisn, who was gunned down on 8 April of the same year in the
state of Veracruz, and Enrique Perea Quintanilla, the founder of the
investigative monthly Dos Caras, Una Verdad, whose body, bearing the marks of
torture, was found on 9 August 2006 in the state of Chihuahua. The underlying
causes are the lack of cooperation between federal and regional authorities
and the fact that drug trafficking's tentacles reach into the heart of the
administration.
    Even if the number of murders of journalists has fallen in Colombia, the
civil war and violent crime weigh as much as ever on the news media's
activities and safety. The demobilisation of the paramilitary alliance known
as the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) from June 2003 to
June 2006 did not include the social reintegration of its members so it had
the perverse effect of leading to the recreation of individual armed groups
such as the "Aguilas Negras," which operates independently in the Atlantic
coast departments.
    In the south, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) have gone back to their old methods of intimidation and
sabotage. Several journalists, including some at odds with President Alvaro
Uribe, have been forced to leave the country since the start of the year.
    They include Radio Caracol news director Dario Arizmendi Posada, who was
threatened by an unknown group, German Hernandez Vera, the managing editor of
the Diario del Huila newspaper in the southwestern city of Neiva, who had long
been in the FARC's sights, Gonzalo Guillén, the Colombia correspondent of the
Miami-based El Nuevo Herald, and Hollman Morris, producer and host of the
investigative programme "Contravia" on public TV's Canal Uno, who was harassed
by the "Patriotic Front," a mysterious group linked to the paramilitaries.
    Other cases of violence and abuse of authority have marked 2007 in such
countries as Honduras and El Salvador, where freelance journalist Maria Haydee
Chicas was detained on a terrorism charge in July after covering a
demonstration. In Brazil, the police have still not caught the killers of Luiz
Barbon Filho, a reporter for the Jornal do Porto and JC Regional newspapers,
who was gunned down on 5 May in Sco Paulo.

    Decriminalization of press offences

    Polarisation should not serve as a pretext for the authorities to use the
withdrawal of state advertising as a way to pressure news media, as has too
often proved to be the case at the local level in Argentina. Nor should it
give rise to attempts to control the press or restrict freedom of expression
or, worse still, to include the criminalization of press offences. The latter
is clearly possible in Ecuador, proceeding to constitutional reforms, although
the debate is still open.
    It would, in general, be desirable it legislative changes were to include
the decriminalization of press offences such as defamation, slander and
insults. This was done at the federal level in Mexico on 6 March. Only six
countries have so far decriminalized the offence of insulting a public
official (Honduras, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay and Guatemala).
    This tendency is clearly not being followed in Venezuela, where a
referendum is to be held on 2 December on a constitutional reform that would
allow a state of emergency of unlimited duration under which press freedom
could be suspended. It would confirm the disturbing decline in media diversity
marked by Radio Caracas Televisisn's loss of its terrestrial broadcasting
licence on 27 May.
    There is nonetheless a need to regulate the allocation of broadcast
frequencies in a region known for remarkable growth in the number of community
radio stations. The draft law adopted by Uruguay's house of representatives on
5 June, under which frequencies will be assigned jointly by the state and
civil society, is clearly an example to be followed. Chile's parliament is
soon to debate legislation on this kind of media.

    The Cuban exception

    Consolidated in some countries, weakened in others, press freedom exists
to some degree everywhere in the region except one country, Cuba, where the
human rights situation has not evolved since Razl Castro took over as acting
president from his elder brother, Fidel, on 26 July 2006. With 24 dissident
journalists detained - three of them arrested under the new president - Cuba
is the world's second biggest prison for the press, after China.
    Among the 20 journalists held since the March 2003 crackdown, serving
sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years, the state of health of Normando
Hernandez Gonzalez, the head of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de
Camaguey independent news agency, is particularly alarming.
    Reporters Without Borders supports Costa Rica's attempts to persuade the
Cuban authorities to allow it to give Hernandez humanitarian asylum. The
organisation also calls on the governments to intercede on behalf of Hernandez
and the other imprisoned journalists.




For further information:

For further information: Emily Jacquard, secretary general, Reporters
Without Borders Canada, (514) 521-4111, Cell: (514) 258-4208, Fax: (514)
521-7771, rsfcanada@rsf.org

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