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IAPA concerned over deteriorating state of press freedom in hemisphere

(IAPA/IFEX) - The following is a 21 July 2007 IAPA press release:

IAPA asks governments in the Americas to rescue press freedom as a democratic value
IAPA leadership reviews restrictions and acts of violence against journalists in the past three months

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (July 21, 2007) - The Executive Committee of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) expressed its concern over the deteriorating state of press freedom in the Western hemisphere, and publicly called on governments in the Americas to rescue freedom of the press as one of the "essential values for strengthening democracy and developing society to its full potential."

In reviewing the state of press freedom in the Americas, the IAPA leadership expressed its deep concern over a number of developments since March of this year, including the killings, disappearances and threats to which reporters in Mexico have been subjected; the worsening health conditions of independent journalists behind bars in Cuba; and the closure of Radio Caracas Televisión in Venezuela.

The IAPA reaffirmed the conclusions of its recent mission to Venezuela, where it found press freedom to be in a state of decline, especially as a result of the closure of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) on May 27.

The IAPA also expressed its solidarity with RCTV staff and highlighted the station's continued efforts to provide news to the public. The station began broadcasting on cable and satellite television on Monday of this week. No sooner had RCTV's license been cancelled than the Venezuelan government took over the frequency to begin operating a new government-run station called TVes. The new station is using the broadcasting equipment seized from RCTV, a measure upheld by the Venezuelan Supreme Court.

IAPA President Rafael Molina, editor of the Dominican newspaper El Día, said that "it is increasingly clear that a political climate reigns in Venezuela in which freedom of the press and freedom of speech are more and more restricted," alluding to the closure of RCTV and the more than 100 reported assaults on journalists and media outlets in recent months.

Meanwhile, Gonzalo Marroquín, chairman of the IAPA Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information and editor of the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre, said that the Venezuelan government "has no respect for pluralism and diversity in the media and is determined to open up outlets for government propaganda. This is clearly restricting people's opportunities to voice dissent and criticism, which is so crucial in a democracy."

At yesterday's conclusion of the Hemispheric Conference on the Judiciary, the Press, and Impunity - which was attended by more than 200 people, including Supreme Court justices, academics, and journalists - IAPA delegates stressed that violent crimes against journalists constitute a serious violation of the public's right to be informed.

The IAPA discussed the recent killings of journalists in Mexico. Amado Ramírez, a correspondent for Televisa in Acapulco, was killed on April 7, and Saúl Martínez Ortega of Interdiario in Agua Prieta, Sonora, was found dead one week after he went missing on April 17. The IAPA also called attention to the disappearance of Gamaliel López and Gerardo Paredes, both of them TV Azteca correspondents in Monterrey, and to the case of Enésimo Zúñiga Franco, a journalist for the Torreón newspaper El Sol who went missing for several hours before he was found beaten but alive. Zúñiga's assailants remain at large.

Self-censorship is one of the most significant effects of the violence and impunity that the IAPA has been working to combat for more than a decade now. In the case of the newspaper Cambio in the state of Sonora, the paper's management decided to cease publication on May 25 after its headquarters were attacked with explosives on two separate occasions, and after authorities failed to provide assurances that its 250-plus employees would be able to work in safety.

The IAPA Executive Committee again called for the release of Cuban independent journalists from prison, and charged the government of Raúl Castro with "endangering the lives of nine of the 28 reporters behind bars by denying them even the most basic health care despite their serious medical conditions."

The most recent such case in Cuba is that of journalist Armando Betancourt Reina, who on July 7 was sentenced to 15 months in prison after a trial that had been continued several times due to a lack of formal charges. Betancourt, a member of the news agency Nueva Prensa Cubana, had been held without bond since May 23, 2006, for having gone to a neighborhood where residents were protesting a forceful eviction by authorities in the province of Camagüey.

The IAPA Executive Committee also called on governments to allow journalists to do their work freely. A number of leaders have engaged in campaigns to discredit journalists and media outlets by claiming that their criticism of the government or their reports of corruption have a destabilizing influence.

One such example is Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who has been persistent in his hostility toward the press as a whole. In repeated outbursts, Correa has described the press as "incompetent," "corrupt," "middling," "mafia-like," and as "liars" and "savage beasts." He has also threatened to "democratize" the media.

Meanwhile, the IAPA insisted that discrimination in the placement of government-funded advertising - as a way of rewarding or punishing media outlets for their editorial lines - is corruption, plain and simple. The IAPA maintains that this practice remains common in Nicaragua, Uruguay, Aruba, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile. In fact, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies has decided to look into how government money is spent on advertising, and has stressed the need for "transparency and pluralism" in the placement of government advertising.

In discussing other assaults on journalists and media outlets in the Western hemisphere, the IAPA called attention to violence against members of the press in Paraguay, even as it celebrated this week's re-emergence of Paraguayan radio journalist Enrique Galeano, who is alive and well after having been missing for a year and a half. Galeano had gone into hiding in São Paulo, Brazil, after receiving a number of death threats.

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