A protestor.

A protestor in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP)

How Latin American Journalists Are Overcoming Hurdles in 2023

By Carin Zissis

Despite threats and censorship, journalists across Latin America keep reporting. In light of Press Freedom Day, we cover regional examples and innovations.

It just keeps getting harder for reporters to get their work done in the Americas. Latin American journalists face intimidation, hacks and spying, internet blockages, imprisonment, and exile. Confronted with threats from populist and authoritarian leaders, local officials, and criminal groups alike, they’re tasked with battling a barrage of disinformation and personal attacks

Too often, reporting on issues such as corruption and crime ends up costing them their lives. Thirty journalists were killed last year in the region, making Latin America the deadliest place in the world for media workers. Moreover, impunity runs rampant. Mexico, which experienced its deadliest year on record for media workers in 2022, alone accounts for 28 unsolved murders of journalists over the past decade—the highest number of any country tracked by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The dangers reporters face serve as a warning well beyond the region. But despite these stark figures, journalists in the Americas continue to defy censorship, resource crunches, and tech barriers to get out the news. In light of the UN World Press Freedom Day on May 3—which in 2023 marks its thirtieth year—here’s a look at initiatives to leap these obstacles and get news to audiences in the Americas.

Reporting in exile: Spotlight on Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Ortega regime released 222 political prisoners in February 2023, in what some view as a move to improve relations with Washington. Important players in the country’s world of independent media were part of the group. Shipped to the United States, many remain committed to their work, even from afar. “I left jail with a stronger conviction that I have to continue fighting for freedom of expression,” La Prensa publisher Juan Lorenzo Holmann, detained for 545 days, told CPJ after his arrival in the United States. The outlet, which is the country’s oldest newspaper, continues operating digitally but ceased its print edition in 2021 after the government withheld print and ink supplies. La Prensa’s editorial staff fled the country last year

Holmann, now based in Virginia, has followed in the footsteps of over 150 Nicaraguan journalists forced to leave their country since a 2018 government crackdown in retaliation for nationwide protests. More than a third have given up their professions, Confidencial Editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro, based in Costa Rica since 2021, explained during a Reuters Institute event in March. “[Exile] is now a permanent, medium-term condition that poses immense challenges for journalism,” he said. But he also outlined ways reporters can keep doing their job from abroad by cultivating at-risk sources, curating social media information, innovating on digital platforms, joining international journalism collaborations, and securing funding as a “democratic imperative.” 

Outlets like La Prensa and Confidencial keep delivering news, and others living in exile have built new ways to do so. Marta Irene Sánchez, also a Nicaraguan journalist living in exile in San José, launched digital news site República18. At the Knight Centers 2023 Colloquium on Digital News, Sánchez said Nicaraguans in exile have launched about 30 media initiatives. “We need resources,” said Sánchez, who is also director of the Independent Journalist and Communicators of Nicaragua. “We have to move from surviving to living.”

Getting around the censors: Innovating in Venezuela

What do you do when a government systematically blocks news distribution through measures like taking legal action, censoring outlets, and revoking licenses. This has been the case for years in Venezuela, where more than 60 newspapers stopped circulating between 2013 and 2022 and 285 radio broadcasters shut down operations from 2003 to 2022. 

Switching to digital isn’t a guarantee either: Independent news sites like Efecto Cocuyo, El Pitazo, and Crónica Uno have faced internet blockages that prevent them from sharing news online. During 2021 regional elections alone, the state worked with Internet Service Providers to block roughly 35 news sites. But rather than giving up, outlets have learned to evolve to reach new readers, viewers, and listeners. 

Born as a YouTube channel, eight-year-old news platform El Pitazo shares regional stories through a massive network of journalists across Venezuela and has faced internet blocks at least four times. But it delivers news to people in other ways as well, given that it has half a million followers on Facebook and over a million on both Instagram and Twitter. It also reaches readers via WhatsApp, Telegram, SMS, radio, and by using four different internet domains. During Venezuela’s widespread electricity outages in 2019, El Pitazo worked with infociudadanos—citizens it trains through workshops—to create and post paper announcements of news on walls to keep otherwise disconnected communities informed. The platform even launched a theater series to perform true stories in communities and on YouTube. 

El Pitazo is also part of an alliance with outlets TalCual and Runrunes called Alianza Rebelde Investiga (ARI), formed to investigate and report on corruption as well as to help train journalists and increase diversity. ARI launched, among other products, mujeresreferentes.org to help journalists access Venezuelan women and non-binary people for news reporting. At the 2023 ISOJ conference, ARI coordinator Ronna Rísquez announced a new project: viene rodando, a news truck that will travel through Venezuela to keep communities informed. “I think that as journalists we have a job, and our job … is to keep telling the truth.” Rísquez recently told the Latin America Journalism Review. “If we don’t do it, we’re opening a space for those who seek to threaten us, and for those trying to end democracy.”

From the pandemic to AI: Battling disinformation across the hemisphere

The rise of social media has brought with it another wave: the ability to spread misinformation at a rapid speed—whether the origin of the falsehood involves bots, public officials, or someone’s uncle in a WhatsApp chat. With that has come a need to battle bots, false claims, and fake news. For years, sites like Argentina’s Chequeado, Brazil’s Aos Fatos, Mexico’s Verificado, and Peru’s Ojó Público have been doing just that. But they’ve also created programs in which fact-checking trainers can help bridge gaps in journalism education and media literacy in Latin America and beyond. Since 2014, Chequeado has trained more than 7,000 journalists

The Covid-19 pandemic served as a spotlight on the deep need for factchecking, particularly early in the pandemic when Spanish-language rumors filled data voids, allowing dangerous misinformation to spread. The pandemic forced one network, LatamChequea, to suspend summits it had been holding since 2014. But the network, made up of 38 factchecking organizations from 18 countries, joined together again in Colombia last year. Among other activities, the network published investigations known as Los Desinformantes that uncovered how various actors spread disinformation throughout the pandemic. 

Lessons learned in Latin America are now reaching the United States. Last year, Chequeado’s Laura Zommer and Maldita.es’ Clara Jiménez Cruz launched Factchequeado, an online verification hub for the roughly 60 million U.S.-based Latinos. 

If Covid-19 sparked one type disinformation pandemic, factcheckers are eyeing how artificial intelligence is evolving to create new ones. Chequeado’s Pablo Fernández told Mexican factchecking portal El Sabueso that “those who generate disinformation have many resources and tools, and we can’t fall behind and lose the battle.” He notes that while it’s often possible when reviewing images to detect AI-generated errors in eyes or hands, “machines learn, and this will surely be solved soon enough.” But AI can also be used for verification, demonstrated by tools like ClaimHunter, Claim Check, and Argentina’s own Chequebot