Freedom of the press facing oppression in Latin America 

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, designated Wednesday as World Press Freedom Day.

Latin America’s increasingly heavy-handed dictators generally have shifted from messy tactics of controlling the press — such as beating journalists in the streets or jailing them. Instead, using denunciations, lawsuits and broadcast-license rejections can accomplish the same objectives without drawing blood.

Even better, from the authoritarian standpoint, teaching a lesson to one or two journalists might persuade others to watch their words. Why censor journalists when they can do that dirty work for you via self-censorship?

As Miami’s Inter-American Press Association demonstrates, media-related hemispheric oppression is on the rise:

Consider Nicaragua, where Sandinista Daniel Ortega is president. On Feb. 19, someone phoned Luis Galeano, a writer for El Nuevo Diario. The message was simple: “You only have 72 hours to live.”

That day, someone sent Galeano his third threat this year. He was told to stop publishing stories about alleged fraud in the Supreme Electoral Council. His physical safety also was challenged when he wrote about suspected corruption at the Finance Ministry.

On March 21, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa filed a libel lawsuit against the newspaper El Universo and its executives. Correa apparently disliked an opinion piece that accused him of ordering an attack on a hospital during a September police revolt. Correa wants $80 million in damages — $30 million from the newspaper and the remaining $50 million to be paid personally by executives Carlos, Cesar and Nicolas Perez and by opinion editor Emilio Palacio. Correa also wants these four men to spend three years in prison.

In addition, Correa is campaigning for a Sunday referendum that would make government “a regulator and controller of media content.”

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 27, members of the leftist General Confederation of Labor waved pro-government banners while blockading the joint printing plant of the anti-government newspapers Clarin and La Nacion.

In December and January, Argentine civil court Judge Gaston Polo Olivera held that the right to demonstrate cannot hinder freedom of the press. He barred these blockades and ordered Security Minister Nilda Garre to enforce his ruling. Nonetheless, police have let the barricades proceed. Thus, the Inter-American Press Association declared April 7: “The lack of action by the prosecutors in the investigation of these events has led to an impunity that will undoubtedly become the main factor for the increasing threats.”

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez last year told cable companies to dump RCTV International because it refused to air his speeches. The dictator also has denied licenses to two small TV channels and 38 radio stations — four of them the same week in March that Argentina’s University of La Plata honored him for journalistic excellence. Nonetheless, Chavez prohibits Venezuelans from publishing the Bolívar-dollar exchange rate.

Finally, in 2010, 23 journalists were murdered in the Americas. Most appear to have fallen victim to criminals, gangs and cartels, rather than politicians and bureaucrats.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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