Nairobi Pinto, a renowned Venezuelan broadcast journalist, was kidnapped this month by armed men who held her for eight days. This is just the latest incident in what has become an epidemic of criminality against reporters, not just in Venezuela, but in Latin America as a whole. According to Reporters Without Borders, last year 71 journalists were killed, 87 were kidnapped, 826 were arrested, and 2160 were threatened or physically assaulted. Of all the volatile and war torn regions of the world, Latin America is the most deadly to be a journalist (12 lost their lives last year, in a region which is supposedly untouched by conflict in the conventional sense).
The continuing struggle for a free press has been a particularly brutal one in Latin America. The military dictatorships of the 19th century regularly imprisoned, exiled and murdered journalists for their satirical cartoons, mocking sonnets and subversive criticism. As some countries (such as Chile, Uruguay and Colombia) began to develop a tendency towards democracy in the early 20th century, newspapers (and later radio and television stations) were established which have endured the test of time. By the mid-to-late 20th century, more and more of the regions media outlets found themselves used as tools for political control, rather than organs of objective reporting. Right-wing military dictatorships (in places like Argentina, Chile and Brazil) frequently persecuted or ‘disappeared’ journalists who opposed them. Some leaders (such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Chile’s Augusto Pinochet) used the media to perpetuate their political dominance, or prolong their sinister regimes.

 

Whilst heavy state censorship continues in some Latin American countries (most notably in Cuba and Venezuela), generally speaking, it’s been more than two decades since the end of the military regimes (and their state censorship of the media) which had once characterized Latin America. Whilst “peace” and “democracy” have supposedly been bought to the region (at least in theory), journalists continue to find themselves at risk of violent persecution from organised crime, paramilitary organisations and sometimes public officials.

 

According to the World Press Freedom Index 2014 (Reporters Without Borders), some countries fare worse than others. In Venezuela, government oppression of journalists is widespread. The socialist government controls or censors a disproportionate number of mainstream media outlets in the country. Just recently, the only television channel not under the auspices of the government (Columbian news station NTN24) was taken off the air during the recent (well publicised) anti-government protests. Cuba also tops the list of state censorship. The communist government’s control of the press   resembles the darkest days of the Soviet Union. Journalists failing to tow the party line, swiftly find themselves ostracised, and are unable to continue working as a journalist in a country where all (legal) media is controlled by the state. Those reporters who vigorously   take anti-governments positions or oppose government censorship (such as blogger Yoani Sánchez) find themselves monitored by shadowy security agents, detained, and labelled “anti-revolutionary dissidents”.

 

The situation is similarly grim in Mexico. In that country, there were more attacks against journalists last year than in any other during recent times (bare in mind that 88 journalists have been killed and 18 have gone missing in the last 13 years). Mexico is a country in which editors are so fearful of retaliation from drug cartels (but also from their own government – 330 acts of aggression were reported last year, 60% attributed to public officials) that many now refuse to report on organised crime at all. Much of the country’s reporting of a drug war which has claimed as many as 157,000 lives since 2006 (according to some estimates), has moved exclusively to online blogs (such as www.borderlandbeat.com). A blog called blog del narco, which chronicled the drug war, had arguably been the country’s most important news source covering the carnage, until May 2013, when its (until then) anonymous proprietor was forced to flee the country in fear of her life. In February this year, crime reporter Gregorio Jiménez was kidnapped and later found dead in a ditch, he was reportedly paid as little as 20 Mexican pesos (or 90p) per article. In 2012, the country passed a law which hoped to protect journalists, by making attacks against them a federal crime (not very reassuring in a country where 98% of murders go unsolved).

 

Perhaps surprisingly, Reporters Without Borders named Brazil (the host of this year’s world cup tournament) as the regions most deadly country for journalists. The far reaching influence of organised crime and corruption make the country one of the most inhospitable for reporters in the world (and the most deadly in the western hemisphere). During the first three months of this year, four reporters were killed in Brazil whilst carrying out their work (the country ranks alongside the likes of Pakistan and Iraq). The most recent incident occurred in February, when cameraman Santiago Andrade died after a flare exploded next to his head during a violent protest in Rio de Janeiro.

 

Journalism is under attack in Latin America. A free and fair media should exist to combat the blatant propaganda and rumour-mongering which had characterized the years of military and undemocratic rule in so many Latin American countries. Instead, Latin American journalists (particularly those covering crime and politics) find themselves constrained by self-censorship (and in some cases state censorship), for fear of persecution. Nairobi Pinto, the Venezuelan broadcast journalist, was released unharmed after eight days in captivity, but she was one of the lucky ones. As a result of widespread persecution, too many journalists are operating in a state of fear. If Latin American governments are truly committed to the goal of democracy, as most profess to be, they must start to do more to protect their reporters.

 

Democracy can only truly flourish when the population is able to hold their state institutions to account via a free and fair press. A healthy democracy can only be achieved when journalists are able to publicly debate the issues most affecting their societies, and when the media is permitted to objectively critique their leaders without fear of reprisal. A free and fair press should act as an essential component of the checks and balances of any healthy democratic state. Yet, these checks and balances are increasingly under attack in too many Latin American countries. How can Mexican society even begin to resolve a drug war (which has claimed so many lives), whilst many of its mainstream journalist’s are too afraid to publicly report on it? How can Venezuelans form free and fair opinions on the direction of their country (at such a pivotal moment in its history), whilst its government dominates and censors the mainstream media? How can Brazil hope to end the corruption and common criminality which plagues its society, whilst Brazilian reporters operate in such dangerous conditions?

 

Organised crime, corruption and criminality will only further increase its grip on the region, until Latin America can unshackle itself from the fear which pervades the regions media. Latin American societies must act now to rectify this situation, for the sake of their future democracy, prosperity and freedom.