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Indirect Censorship: The Silent Enemy

November 19, 2009

Freedom of the press is under attack in Latin America, with much of it below the radar screen. But rather than internationally publicized, state-driven actions, judicial and legal harassment is often the tool of choice to threaten the media.

In 2009, examples range from a Mexican mayoral candidate suing journalists for defamation to Peruvian President Alan García’s son initiating a $1 million lawsuit against a blogger to the four-month imprisonment of an Ecuadorian journalist for defamation. In Colombia, a journalist will soon be jailed as a result of legal action.

What is common in all of these cases? Journalists were trying to expose public interest issues involving public officials or public figures and these people responded with legal actions—most of them criminal charges—against them. The common thread here is seeking disproportionate compensation or trying to imprison a journalist for his or her words with the goal of silencing their accusations.

Indirect censorship is different and in some ways more sophisticated than direct or traditional censorship. Instead of killing or attacking journalists or closing media outlets, restrictions against free speech are not visible to citizens.

We are now witnessing with more frequency governments withdrawing public funds for the media or distributing money based on content. Other governments have chosen to revoke licenses or systematically refuse to disclose public information. The result of these actions is to curtail public discussion and democratic debate.

While this happens, many governments proudly say that fewer journalists or none at all are being killed or attacked. Such is the case in countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia. In Mexico, the opposite is true: drug traffickers increasingly target and murder journalists covering the narcotics trade. But an overall decline in journalists’ deaths does not translate into more freedom and dissemination of information.

Civic movements and advocacy groups have to understand this challenge. Indirect censorship implies a new approach to freedom of expression where the state is no longer seen as the enemy. The response should be public policies that foster debate and increase the number of unheard voices, prioritizing freedom of expression.

There are good examples on how governments have sought to foster press freedom. In 2009, Guatemala passed a new law on access to information and Mexican courts raised the minimal standards to sue journalists for criminal defamation. In Colombia, local municipalities are promoting legislation to make official advertisement funds more transparent.

These issues will continue to be part of the freedom of expression agenda in 2010. Although less spectacular than brutal attacks against journalists this form of indirect censorship can also have a significant influence on what is reported. Without combating it, we risk threatening one of the cornerstones of a democracy.

Carlos Cortés is a journalist and the former director of the Press Freedom Foundation in Colombia.