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Summary: Freedom of Expression in the Americas

Press freedom event

Tamoa Calzadilla and Carlos Lauria. (Image: Roey Yohai)

October 22, 2014

Opening Remarks:  

  • Carlos Lauría, Senior Americas Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists

Panelists:

  • Frank Bajak, Associated Press, U.S.
  • Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, U.S.
  • Paco Calderón, Grupo Reforma, Mexico
  • Giannina Segnini, La Nación, Costa Rica
  • Tamoa Calzadilla, RunRun.es, formerly of Últimas Noticias, Venezuela
  • Laura Weffer, formerly of Últimas Noticias, Venezuela
  • Christopher Sabatini, Editor-in-Chief, Americas Quarterly; Senior Director of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas (moderator)

Summary

On October 15, AS/COA hosted a panel discussion on freedom of expression in the Americas. The lunch and discussion were held in honor of the winners of the 76th Annual Maria Moors Cabot Awards for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. The awardees were joined on the panel by Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Project Journalists, and Christopher Sabatini, of Americas Quarterly and AS/COA. Panelists discussed the shifting challenges to freedom of expression in Latin America, the threats posed by the rise of organized crime in the region, the economics of journalism in Latin America, and the pitfalls and opportunities technology poses for the profession.

Evolving Challenges to Freedom of Expression

In their opening remarks, Lauría and Sabatini noted that press in Latin America is freer and more vibrant today than it has been in recent history. Democratic governance has taken root throughout the region and—although there are exceptions—violent persecution of journalists by state actors has declined. Nevertheless, Lauría noted that a “climate of violence affecting the press” and “government repression” persist. The spread of transnational organized crime throughout Latin America has not only introduced a new set of actors, often violently opposed to journalists and their work, but foments political turmoil and weakened local institutions. This stems from instability and corruption, and has undermined journalists’ already poor institutional protection in the region. In addition to the rise in “murders and attacks against the press” highlighted by Lauría, Tracy Wilkinson of The Los Angeles Times and Frank Bajak of the Associated Press emphasized that in areas of Mexico and Colombia, poor security creates hurdles to accessing information and a tendency toward self-imposed censorship. Giannina Segnini of La Nación pointed out that the threats posed by organized crime have spread to areas previously deemed safe, such as Costa Rica.

Beyond the threat of violence against journalists and their sources, Lauría highlighted the “series of judicial [and] legislative limitations being placed on the press by democratically elected governments that wish to control information and stifle dissent,” most significantly in Venezuela. In addition to legal limitations, Tamoa Calzadilla and Laura Weffer (both formerly of Últimas Notícias) pointed out that wholesale acquisition of media outlets by pro-government capital curtails press freedoms in Venezuela. Calzadilla and Weffer recounted how a piece they worked on covering the Venezuelan protests of early 2014 was cut by an editor for politically motivated reasons, ultimately leading both of them to resign.

The Changing Economics of Journalism in the Hemisphere

Even if threats from violent organized crime, autocratic governments and corruption were suddenly resolved, journalism in Latin America would still face serious existential problems. Confronted with the aftermath of the global financial and economic crises and the rise of new technologies that compete with traditional media platforms, journalism in Latin America is undergoing painful adjustments. According to Bajak, the growing lack of resources for journalists and news outlets means that “we have to almost daily make decisions about what we can’t cover.” Wilkinson agreed, but noted that, at least in terms of U.S. coverage of Latin America, what has decreased has been the “quantity, not quality” of coverage. Bajak added that diminished resources push journalists to become more entrepreneurial, and to broaden their audiences by finding new, especially multimedia-focused, ways of presenting their work.

In Segnini’s view, “print media in Latin America is not yet suffering as much as in the U.S. and other regions.” She added that in many ways this is a bad thing, as it is only a matter of time until Latin American print publications face the same kind pressures as their counterparts elsewhere, and “they are not investing enough in developing or innovating news ways and new platforms to tell stories.” In Mexico, at least, Calderón said newspapers were already feeling the pinch. He noted that in periods of retrenchment, at traditional papers it is the cartoonists who are cut first, adding that this was perhaps the greatest threat to him as a journalist.

The Rise of Digital Technologies

One of the explanations for journalism’s economic woes hinges on the “disruptive” role of new technologies, which in many ways circumvent traditional outlets’ control over the flow of news and information. The views of the panelists on the impact and role of these technologies were mixed. On the one hand, digital technology makes aspects of their jobs easier. From cutting down time-intensive production to allowing journalists to concentrate news sources and contacts in one place via platforms like Twitter, digital technologies have reshaped the way journalists go about their jobs. On the other hand, Bajak noted that social media in particular has limited the ability of journalists to keep a low profile in areas where a high degree of visibility can be dangerous. Wilkinson added that official sources often use social media to cultivate a sense of increased transparency and accessibility while managing to dodge closer engagement with the press.

In what was perhaps one of the most novel interpretations of the effect of technology and new platforms on the work of journalists, Segnini posited that the rise of bloggers and other citizen journalists will free journalists from the drudgery of covering “daily news,” and allow them to focus their energies on more intensive investigative reports. Additionally, she noted that the digitization of vast swaths of public data allows journalists to “tell stories that in the past we were not able to find.”