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Press Freedom in Latin America: A survey.

Here's a country-by-country look at recent developments affecting press freedom in Latin America, based on the reports issued by the Inter American Press Association at its midyear meeting in Cancun, Mexico:


Free-press advocates cheered when a court on Feb. 2 imposed sentences of life imprisonment on the murderer and five principal accomplices convicted of the 1997 killing of Noticias photographer Jose Luis Cabezas. But the conviction has not stopped other acts of intimidation, the latest a death threat to Frank Varise, a reporter for the Buenos Aires newspaper La Naci-n who has been investigating alleged police involvement with an organized crime gang specializing in cattle rustling.


Police and military security personnel have been involved in several incidents of physical assaults on news photographers. Reporters on Correio Popular, a daily in Campinas, near Sao Paulo, have stopped using bylines because of threats by drug traffickers. Congress, meanwhile, is giving serious consideration to two wide-ranging gag laws. One, proposed by the government, would prohibit police, prosecutors, judges, and others from providing any information about "investigations, actions, or trials" during legal proceedings. Another, pushed by the judicial branch, would amend the constitution to ban prosecutors and judges from providing information about court cases.


The nation remains among the most dangerous in the world for working journalists. The grim statistics continued growing even as IAPA was issuing its report: a body found in an unmarked grave was identified March 14 as radio reporter Maria Helena Salina, who had been missing for a week while covering violence in the northwestern corner of the country. She became the 150th journalist killed in Colombia during the past 20 years.


Harassment, intimidation, and jailing have worsened since the beginning of the year. IAPA said Cuba has added a new tool of repression: "A sort of de facto house arrest that has been applied to more than 10 reporters just as they were about to cover events potentially uncomfortable for the government."


A campaign-finance law passed in late February permits the Electoral Supreme Court to fine and even close down for six months any news organization that does not report within 30 days of an election the amount of money parties have spent on political advertising.


A Mexican businessman who has helped new President Alfonso Portillo with some $2.5 million in free advertising on his four TV stations and 21 radio outlets is leading a "smear campaign" against independent newspapers, especially the nation's biggest, Prensa Libre.


No significant press violations have been reported during the recent period of political calm, but President Ren? Preval disappointed an IAPA delegation when he balked at signing the Declaration of Chapultepec.


Authorities appear to be dragging their feet in recent murder cases. And protests from IAPA and Mexican newspapers, most notably the Reforma group, convinced the government to back off its plan to designate the state-owned news agency Notimex as the exclusive distributor of public- sector advertising. Mexican papers said they feared the government would use the monopoly to revive its old practice of withholding or awarding advertising according to how closely a newspaper reflected the official view of events.


President Arnoldo Aleman has adopted "a policy of confrontation with the national press," IAPA said. In addition to constant criticism of newspapers, especially La Prensa in Managua, Aleman's administration has targeted tax audits at papers that offend the government.


Panama at the end of last year eliminated most of the anti-press laws adopted by authoritarian regimes, and President Mireya Moscoso signed the Declaration of Chapultepec document for a free press in the hemisphere.


Government officials and others have filed numerous legal actions "clearly intended to silence journalists and the media," IAPA said. In perhaps the most notorious case, Osvaldo Dom'nguez Dibb, publisher of the newspaper La Naci-n, was sentenced last September to four months in prison or a $17,000 fine for "defaming" a Supreme Court justice in an article that discussed the Peruvian judicial system in general terms. Dibb appealed, and, on Jan. 4, an appellate court increased the sentence to nine months in jail or an $85,000 fine.


As he attempted to win an unprecedented third term in elections to be held yesterday, President Alberto Fujimori turned up the heat on independent news media. The daily El Comercio is under government- inspired attacks from a state-run TV station and a judicial challenge from a group of minority stockholders. A national press group reported more than 100 attacks on journalists in the past few months, almost all of them in the provinces.

Puerto Rico

Physical attacks against journalists are increasing. The Legislature is considering laws that would bar access to information about government contracts and the commonwealth's Bureau of Special Investigations. And ata time when other countries are eliminating jail time for libel and other journalistic "crimes," Puerto Rico is going in the opposite direction. At the end of last year, Gov. Pedro Rossell- signed the controversial Law 329, which increases penalties for "criminal libel" with punishments including up to six months' imprisonment.


"For the first time since democracy was restored in Uruguay, a journalist was killed because of the views he expressed," IAPA said, referring to the murder of Julio C. Da Rosa, owner and director of a small-town radio station. A former employee of the local municipal council, blaming the station for his firing, fatally shot Da Rosa Feb. 24 and then killed himself.


Journalists fear censorship will be the inevitable result of the new constitution created by allies of President Hugo Chavez and passed in a referendum last December. The charter places many qualifications on the press and states that "the Law limits the use of computers to guarantee the honor and personal and family privacy of citizens in full exercise of their rights." Chavez is proving no friend of journalists, whom he described on his Sunday radio program as "enemies of the revolution, manipulators and propitiators of a campaign against the government."
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Comment:Press Freedom in Latin America: A survey.
Author:Fitzgerald, Mark
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Apr 10, 2000
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