Freedom of the press is under siege around the world, according to the recently released report by the independent watchdog Freedom House. Advanced democracies, which can usually be counted on to defend press freedom, have begun to turn against journalists and media outlets at levels not seen in decades.
None other than the president of the United States has taken to calling the mainstream media “the enemy of the American people.” Authoritarian regimes, which tend to keep the media on a much shorter leash, have tightened their hold even further. A good example is Turkey. After a failed coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, government force-launched an offensive against media organizations, arresting journalists and shutting down print, radio, and television outlets. Much the same is happening in Latin America, where several countries are now significantly less free than only a few years ago.
Freedom House allots each country in the world a freedom score, on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 means “completely free” and 100 means “completely unfree.” The score is determined by adding up political, legal, and economic factors that inhibit freedom, including government policies and attitudes, corruption, poverty, crime, and many others. A country that scores below 30 is considered free.
In Latin America, according to this reckoning, there are three countries with a genuinely free press: Chile (with a score of 29), Uruguay (24), and, comfortably in first place, Costa Rica (16). Costa Rica, in fact, is has been the freest country in the Western Hemisphere for several years now, just ahead of Canada and comfortably ahead of the United States (and that was before Trump got elected).
A country that scores above 60 is considered not free (those between 30 and 60 are deemed “partly free”). North Korea (98) once against heads the list of the least free countries in the world, and Cuba’s press is by far the least free in Latin America: the Caribbean island scored a 90 in the most recent report, a slight decline from a 94 in 2008. After long-time leader Fidel Castro passed on power to his brother Raúl, the government has seemed slightly more tolerant of free and independent expression.
Second highest is Venezuela (81), where the Bolivarian government of Nicolás Maduro has waged an intensifying battle against the opposition-dominated press. Paraguay and Guatemala, two of the poorest countries in the region, hobbled by weak governments and widespread corruption, have scored in the high 50s or low 60s for decades.
Many problems faced by journalists and media organizations in Latin America are systemic and have remained virtually unchanged since most of the region became democratic in the early 1980s. Poverty and income inequality keep a large segment of the population voiceless; organized crime and drug trafficking actively persecutes the media in order to remain unaccountable to the public; corruption in both government and media circles places doubt on the quality of the information being reported. Even given all these factors, a number of countries have seen a significant decline in freedom of the press in the last few years.
For more information on drug war journalism, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8eIHIJFr3U.
In the cases of Mexico (whose scored jumped from 51 in 2008 to 64 this year) and Honduras (51 to 66 in the same period), the main culprit has been the drug war. As drug cartels and gangs with transnational reach have become more powerful, their ability to intimidate and murder journalists has increased. Since drug kingpins have many police departments and local politicians in their pockets, there are ever fewer defenders left for the brave men and women who continue to try to report on their business. Frustrated government officials will often resort to brutal tactics to try to control the cartels, and this sometimes spills over into limitations on the press.
Although crime has also risen in Bolivia (39 in 2008 to 53 in 2017) and Ecuador (41 to 66), in those countries attacks on the media come primarily from political leaders. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, the first Native American to lead his country, has had a contentious relationship with the press since coming to power in 2006, but in the last year things have gotten worse. The government has threatened reporters with criminal prosecution, called media outlets liars, and attempted to silence critical voices through with sketchy legal maneuvers. The situation is similar in Ecuador, where president Rafael Correa also constantly spars with the independent media. As in Venezuela, Ecuadorans witness everyday a war of words between the media sources loyal to the government and those who adamantly oppose it. As the years pass, both sides tend to resort to wild exaggeration, savage invective, and propaganda.
There are many in Latin America who celebrate what Morales, Correa, and Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have achieved. Certainly their governments have turned their attention to the poorest sectors of society. They have instituted extensive social programs and redistributive policies to try to create fairer and more equitable nations. In Bolivia, Morales has worked on behalf of the indigenous majority in the country, long neglected by elites. And their policies bore fruit. In the year 2000, about 70% of Bolivians lived below the poverty line, today the number is closer to 45%. Ecuador under Correa has achieved similar reductions and so did Venezuela, before the current economic crisis.
But when it comes to freedom of expression in their countries, the impact of these leaders has been decidedly negative. Chávez, Correa, and Morales, and Donald Trump for that matter, are all populists. A populist’s power comes from a mass of supporters that sees itself as “the people”, and everyone else as enemies of the people. This good versus evil scenario is developed by the leader, full of charisma and beloved by his followers, and repeated over and over again. Independent voices will inevitably express concern at the populist’s sharp distinctions and inflexible definitions, considering such an attitude a danger for democracy. In response, the populist leader will create his own media platform through which to transmit the government’s message.
The relationship between Chávez (and then Maduro) and the Venezuelan media has been by far the most conflictive. It serves as a sobering warning to the United States, which now has a charismatic populist occupying the Oval Office. The media in the U.S. is stronger than in its southern neighbors, and the right of free speech has been historically protected, but Trump has the resources of the federal government, as well as uncritical propaganda tools in the media, such as the Breibart News Network and Frontpage Mag, to get his message out. Every time that he accuses respected organizations like The New York Times and National Public Radio of delivering “fake news,” he is trying to weaken trust in the free press, for his own purposes.
By the end of 2016 the United States was still considered to have a free press. Is it now set to join the ranks of the unfree?