Reporters Without Borders’ latest ranking of world press freedom highlights how the impact of organized crime on Latin American media not only affects the countries most closely associated with drug trafficking, but is also now on the rise in countries such as Paraguay and Brazil.
The 2014 Press Freedom Index rates media freedom during 2013 in 180 countries based on violations including deaths, attacks, abductions, exile and censorship of journalists, and by measuring authorities’ efforts to protect media rights.
As a region, the Americas received the second best score in the world after the European Union and the Balkans. However, several Latin American nations registered significant drops in press freedom, or continued to register poor scores.
Mexico, long considered one of the region’s most dangerous countries for journalists, continued to hold mainland Latin America’s lowest spot on the list, at 152nd (surpassed by Cuba, at 170th).
However, Brazil, which dropped three places to 111th on the list compared to the year before, has now become “the western hemisphere’s deadliest country for media personnel,” with five journalists murdered in 2013, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB). The report notes how criminal groups and corrupt elites looking to protect their interests made coverage of corruption, drugs and eco-trafficking “very risky” in some parts of the country.
Guatemala also registered a notable fall, dropping 29 places to 125th on the list, with four journalists murdered and double the number of violent attacks on journalists in 2013 than the year before.
Paraguay, which had dropped 11 places on the 2013 list following a June 2012 coup, tumbled a further 13 places, to 105th. RWB explained this partly as a result of the influence of organized crime among the country’s elite.
Honduras, where 27 journalists have been killed since a 2009 coup according to RWB, dropped one place to 129th on the list, while Colombia rose slightly to 126th.
Meanwhile, significant improvements were registered in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Ecuador, and the NGO applauded efforts by Uruguay and Argentina to develop legislation that would help to ensure broadcast media plurality.
InSight Crime Analysis
While there are numerous causes of media repression, including government censorship and the concentration of media power in the hands of a few, in Latin America organized crime stands out as arguably the biggest and certainly the most deadly threat. The lowest ranking Latin American countries in the RWB’s press index are all strategic locations for drug trafficking, and countries where organized crime has firmly taken root.
In the two countries most readily associated with the regional drug trade, Colombia and Mexico, the press has long suffered under the influence of armed criminal groups. The pair rank eighth and joint tenth, respectively, on the CPJ’s list of 20 most dangerous countries for journalists, which is based on murders since 1992. In Mexico, at least 29 journalists have been killed since then as a direct reprisal for their work. In Colombia the total for the same period stands at 45.
In Colombia, violent attacks on the press have declined in recent years as the dynamic of the country’s conflict and underworld has changed, but journalists continue to experience coercion from the guerrillas, narco-paramilitary groups and the state (pdf).
In contrast, Mexico’s beleaguered press has seen little sign of improvement, and in many places has resorted to self-censorship to stave off the violence. The Zetas are particularly notable for their violence against journalists and for obsessively controlling media coverage, as revealed by one exiled journalist’s recent account of her intimidation at their hands.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Among the drug transit nations of Central America, Guatemala was the most dangerous country for journalists in 2013, according to the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC), with 55 violations of press freedom in addition to the four murders. Some of this pressure and intimidation comes from the “mara” street gangs, who have led the country’s media to engage in self-censorship, according to Freedom House (pdf).
In neighboring Honduras, the situation has become particularly dire since the overthrow of its government in 2009, with over 100 journalists and broadcasters victims of threats and aggressions between 2010 and 2013, according to national human rights body CONADEH. In the wake of political turmoil sparked by the coup, the country became a major hub for drug flights, with transnational criminal groups increasing their presence, and the country’s gangs gaining force.
While these countries have been known as dangerous locations for journalists for some years, one of the most worrying aspects to emerge from this year’s RWB report is how the impact of criminal organizations on freedom of expression is spreading to other countries in the region such as Paraguay, and especially Brazil.
While Brazil’s major criminal groups do not have the same profile as those in Mexico or Colombia, with 29 journalists killed since 1992 it currently shares 10th place on the CPJ’s list of most dangerous countries for media alongside Mexico. The fact that 10 of these murders occurred between 2011 and 2013 and nine of those were working on stories about crime or corruption, suggests violence against the media is rising.
In recent years, various journalist murders have occurred in northeast Brazil. This region has become increasingly violent as violence has dropped off in the southeast, a phenomenon thought to be connected to criminal migration and a growing crack cocaine epidemic in the north. Journalists have also been killed in Rio de Janeiro state, home to some of the country’s most violent drug gangs, such as the Red Command (CV), which has gained an increasingly transnational presence in recent years. Two journalist murders have already occurred in 2014, one in the northeast and another in Rio.
SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles
The relationship between the growth of organized crime and the deterioration in conditions for journalists raises the question of which other countries are now vulnerable to this process.
In Argentina, which in recent years has seen a growing criminal presence and an apparent rise in drug transit, consumption and production, it may already be happening: following the publication of a report detailing the operations of a gang in the west of the country, the criminals retaliated with an attack on the newspapers’ offices. Meanwhile, gangs in the northeastern city of Rosario have targeted judicial officials and politicians. These gangs’ use of a modus operandi common to major criminal groups elsewhere is a worrying sign for Argentina’s future media freedom.
Violence from criminal groups in these countries is compounded by high levels of impunity. Brazil, Mexico and Colombia are all on the CPJ’s 2013 Impunity Index of 12 countries that have shown a particular failure to prosecute journalist murders while in Honduras, impunity in anti-media violence has reached such high levels that it prompted the United Nations to reprimand the government for inaction in 2012.
Until these government’s begin to address this impunity — and the corruption that feeds it — organized crime is likely to increase its hold over the Latin American press.