When Maxim Tsoi, a journalist for the Kyrgyzstan newspaper Vecherny Bishkek, made the four-hour drive last spring to the town of Talas on the border with Kazakhstan, he was expecting to gather some local color to illustrate provincial life for readers in the capital city. What Tsoi came away with was a little different. After interviewing local bean farmers, customs officials, and border guards, he had material for a story on the pros and cons of Kyrgyzstan joining the Eurasian Economic Union.
The issue of whether Kyrgyzstan should join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which so far includes Kazakhstan and Belarus, is a source of frequent debate in Bishkek. Membership in the Union has significant implications for the country’s political and economic elites. In the border town, Tsoi found farmers in favor of joining the Union and getting privileged access to new markets. Local resellers of Chinese imports, however, were opposed since they would be facing new tariffs.
“Most of media outlets here in the capital only write about what happens in the capital. So, the material from these trips is quite interesting to everyone, to the journalists and to the readers,” said Tsoi in an interview from Bishkek.
“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.
Saturday, May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, when we celebrate the vital contributions of free media around the world. Unfortunately, journalists, independent media outlets, and the legal and constitutional freedoms they depend on to do their jobs are all under attack in many parts of the world.
Freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of democracy — without a free media to provide citizens with the information they need to hold elected leaders accountable, the institutions of democracy simply cannot function.
The latest edition of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press index, released on Friday, shows that the proportion of the global population living in countries with a free press has declined to its lowest level in over a decade — just 14 percent. The growth of new online and social media outlets in particular has triggered an authoritarian backlash as countries from Russia to Turkey to Venezuela to Thailand crack down on these new forms of communication.