Tag Archives: Independent Media

No Laughing Matter: Press Freedom in Latin America Takes a Hit

bonil-cartoon

“Police and prosecutors search the home of Fernando Villavicencio and take documentation of corruption.” – Cartoon by Xavier Bonilla, published in El Universo on December 28, 2013.

Read about CIPE’s 2014 Global Editorial Cartoon Competition.

In recent years, Latin America has seen an overall shift away from media independence and freedom of the press – only one in 50 Latin Americans live in free media environments, according to Freedom House, even though the majority of Latin American countries are still democracies. The biggest drop — 15 points in the last five years — was in Ecuador, a clear illustration of the problems that can occur when democratically elected leaders curtail media freedom.

After Rafael Correa took office on a wave of populist charisma in 2007, the Ecuadorian media began to realize that they needed to watch themselves due to various acts against independent media that alleged corruption in the Correa family or the Correa administration. These attacks against press freedom were formally legalized with the Organic Law on Communications, passed in 2012 without open debate in the National Assembly or among civil society.

This law, which Correa lauded as a step toward the democratization of media and a strengthening of freedom of expression as it broke up a near-monopoly of news sources owned by a single family, also opened the door to greater state intervention in the media.

The major concern for media outlets is that many aspects of the law were left ambiguous, allowing for broad interpretation and arbitrary application. For instance, Article 26 of the law prohibits “media lynching” and allows public officials being investigated for corruption by the media to sue the journalist or the newspaper doing the investigating. Article 71 of the law defines information as a “public good” equal to water quality and electricity, and therefore subject to increased regulation by the state.

The most recent case of the Correa administration battling perceived defamation in the media is that of Xavier Bonilla, a political cartoonist known by the pen name Bonil.

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Friday Wrap-Up: Youth, Entrepreneurship, and Independent Media

This week on the blog:

Democracy and Independent Media

A demonstrator in Egypt holds up a newspaper. (Photo: Reuters)

For hundreds of years, a free press has been considered an essential component of democracy. Today, however, independent media around the world face a surprising paradox: though more countries in the world are democracies than ever before, the past decade has also seen a stark rise in the number of journalists imprisoned and killed for their work. This includes not only reporters killed in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, but journalists covering corruption, crime, and politics in their own countries, a situation former OSCE media official Miklos Haraszti recently described as “a peacetime war on journalism.” The U.S. State Department has even launched a “Free the Press” campaign to expose the plight of imprisoned journalists.

Given the democratic gains being made around the world, this “war on journalism” comes as a surprise.  And unfortunately, some of the worst abuses are happening in countries where democratic gains are still being consolidated. Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor described the rise in attacks on journalists as a symptom of a creeping “majoritarianism” in these countries, where electoral politics are well-established but dissent is still not tolerated.

The war on journalism goes beyond the most extreme acts of murder and intimidation — journalists routinely face legal and financial pressures and other forms of intimidation that prevent them from fulfilling their vital role in the democratic process. Restrictions on blogging, Internet usage, and popular social media services also serve to stifle the voices of “citizen journalists” like those who famously participated in the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

This World Press Freedom Day, when so many democracies are flourishing yet so many journalists are in peril, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of the free exchange of information to a functioning democracy. The crucial feature which sets democracy apart from other political systems is the ability to self correct. Even with free and fair elections, this can’t happen if dissenting voices are stifled.

There are some bright spots, however: Freedom House noted that the biggest gains in media freedom in 2011 were seen in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, where long-ruling dictators were ousted in a wave of popular uprisings. So far, at least, the new governments in these countries seem to recognize — like the 18th century American and French revolutionaries — that they can’t build a democratic state without a vibrant and independent media.

A-tax on the Press

Recently, the Tax Ministry in Turkey slapped a record $2.5 billion lira fine on the country’s largest media conglomerate, Dogan Media Group (DMG). While the government insists that the company is guilty of tax evasion, opponents of the Justice and Development party (AKP) claim that this is further evidence of Prime Minister Erdogan’s penchant for authoritarianism. Yes, the DMG has most likely violated tax laws, but the disproportionately high penalty (the fine is nearly as much as the value of the company) and the selective application of the law (other media conglomerates are also guilty of similar activities), suggests that the DMG may have been targeted because of long-standing tension between DMG’s owner, Aydin Dogan, and Erdogan. Indeed, the staunchly secular Dogan, has been an outspoken critic of the Prime Minister since his days as mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998) and his newspapers have often disparaged the government for taking Turkey in an Islamist direction. The dispute between the two came to a head last fall in the lead-up to provincial elections when Dogan newspapers reported on links between the AKP and a Turkish charity based in Germany, Deniz Feneri, that had been indicted for fraud. In response, an indignant Erdogan urged his supporters to boycott newspapers that he said “stand by others rather than stand by the prime minister of the Turkish Republic.”  

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Two steps forward, one step back: The media in Indonesia

Yesterday, I attended a roundtable discussion on the state of the media in Indonesia after Soeharto, held by the Center for International Media Assistance of the National Endowment for Democracy.  Some interesting points relating to different types of media:

 Print: Janet Steele (George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs; author of a book on Tempo, an independent magazine during the Soeharto years), praised the relatively free regulatory environment instituted by the post-Soeharto government and noting that the last remaining great obstacle is the civil defamation law and its enforcement. Citing a poorly educated judiciary with little understanding of press freedom, she told one story of how, when a rival print news outlet’s conglomerate owner was logging illegally in a protected area, Tempo Magazine’s front cover story on the subject wrought a defamation law suit upon them. Curiously, the plaintiff was not the conglomerate, but rather the president of the conglomerate himself, who claimed that “a trial should not occur by press.” No one was surprised when Tempo lost the lawsuit.

Radio: Munarsih Sahana is a senior reporter for Radio Republic Indonesia, the government-owned station now converting into public radio.  He noted that over 1,200 registered commercial stations now broadcast across different regions of the country; however, registration remains the problem. Indonesia’s uniquely decentralized democratic structure gives frequency allocation powers to regional governments, while licenses are issued federally by the Ministry of Information and Telecommunication.

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