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Press freedom deteriorating in the region, says IAPA

Conclusions of the IAPA 65th General Assembly - Buenos Aires, November 6-10, 2009

(IAPA/IFEX) - The coordinated action by governments to control the role of the press and constantly discredit it, the excessive increase in violence against journalists, the proliferation of restrictive laws and arbitrary judicial decisions that limit journalistic work are clear signs of the deterioration of press freedom and resulting weakening of the democratic system.

Without a doubt, the most serious concern is that 16 journalists were killed in the past six months (eight in Mexico, three in Honduras, two in Guatemala, two in Colombia and one in El Salvador), the highest number in recent years. This can be attributed to not only the extreme violence by organized crime, but also impunity and the growing deterioration of public safety, which is one of the main concerns of citizens in every corner of the continent.

We strongly condemn the fact that 27 journalists are still in prison in Cuba, many with serious health problems. This country also stands out as one of the most active in controlling and censoring the Internet. It has developed special mechanisms to restrict and threaten the new breed of bloggers.

Throughout the hemisphere, poverty, which persists because of the lack of economic development and inequality in most nations in the hemisphere, is a breeding ground for a trend toward authoritarianism.

The highest officials of several governments act as if press freedom and an independent judiciary impede the changes necessary to eradicate extreme poverty. However, persecution of journalism and any opinion that differs from that of those who hold power only begins the slow and tortuous slide toward corrupt totalitarianism that causes more poverty and violence. These governments channel their aggressiveness into preparations for wars against other countries, such as in Venezuela where this could be the basis for suspension of constitutional guarantees.

Therefore, it is not an accident that several governments are now united by ideology exported from Venezuela by its president, Hugo Chávez, who even sponsored a law of "media crimes" that later was proposed by the attorney general's office. This government also has closed 34 radio stations.

This trend of legal manipulation is reflected in legislation in several countries, such as in the new Audiovisual Services Law sponsored by the Argentine government; in the framework of an unprecedented campaign of harassment against the independent media; in the Communications Law being debated in the National Assembly of Ecuador; and in replicas of them such as the proposed media law in El Salvador.

This subjugation of press freedom legitimized by constitutional amendments and custom-made laws is linked to the establishment and acquisition of media outlets by governments and sectors close to power that are then used as propaganda organs.

Other laws that seek to control content have been proposed or are being discussed in the legislatures of Panama, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay. Brazil is organizing a national conference about the media that could lead to the establishment of measures to control the press.

On the other hand, far from ending discriminatory practices in the placement of government advertising, several governments, such as those of Argentina, Aruba and Netherlands Antilles, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela, still use it to reward and coerce journalists and media outlets.

Another obvious trend within this framework of restrictions is the stagnation of access to information laws, such as in El Salvador and Bolivia, or insufficient enforcement as in Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico, or the total lack of such laws in countries like Venezuela and Cuba.

It is worth mentioning some positive developments such as the decriminalization of defamation and "injuria" (insult) in Uruguay and the proposal by the Argentine executive branch of a bill to decriminalize the offenses of "injuria" and "calumnia", based on a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

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