New Legislation Bolsters, Challenges Press Freedom in Latin America

By Rachel Glickhouse

With May 3 marking World Press Freedom Day, recent legislation in Brazil and Mexico seeks to expand freedom of information, while new and proposed laws in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru impose limits.

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, AS/COA takes a look at some recent legislation in Latin America that affects freedom of information. Since the beginning of 2012, five countries implemented, passed, or proposed laws that seek to expand—or limit—access to information.

Brazil: In November 2011, President Dilma Rousseff signed Brazil’s landmark Information Access Law, making Brazil one of the last Latin American countries to adopt a legal framework for transparency. The law—which goes into effect on May 16—requires all levels of government to publish information on spending, allows citizens to make information requests from the government, and sets time limits on classified documents. Greg Michener, an expert on transparency laws in Latin America, wrote that the law is “strong on its breadth, its duties to publish, and its exceptions from disclosure, sanctions and protections are mostly in order.” But he pointed out that it lacks an oversight process and has a complex reserve scheme to delay the release of classified information.

Ecuador: In January, Ecuador’s Congress passed a reform to the country’s electoral law, known as the Code for Democracy. Originally proposed by President Rafael Correa, the reform went into effect in February, forbidding the media from “promoting, directly or indirectly, positive and negative messages about candidates or political topics” during elections. While Correa said the law would help keep the media from influencing politics, Ecuadoran journalists argue it is an attack on free speech and will make almost any election coverage illegal during campaigns. Journalism groups are contesting the law at Ecuador’s constitutional court; a ruling is pending.

Meanwhile, Ecuador’s Congress is considering a sweeping bill aimed to regulate the media, called the Law of Communication, first proposed in 2009. One of the most controversial parts of the law is the creation of a regulating body to decide and control the broadcast of “discriminatory, racist, violent, and sexual content.” The law would make it easier for citizens to sue journalists and gives more power to government officials to demand broadcast time on TV and radio stations. In mid-April, Ecuador’s legislature postponed a vote on the bill and agreed to vote article by article.

Guatemala: Originally proposed by former President Álvaro Colom last year, Bill 4328 is under consideration in Guatemala’s Congress after being submitted in February 2012. The legislation would alter the country’s 2008 freedom of information law, identifying over 100 military and diplomatic records as matters of national security and making them confidential. Under the freedom of information law, confidential documents have no time limitations, and therefore could remain perpetually hidden from the public. The records in question date from 1954 to 1996, meaning information on human rights abuses from the country’s 36-year civil war could be withheld. The bill caused an outcry among Guatemala’s human rights and press freedom groups, who argue that the law would violate Guatemala’s constitution and international human rights laws.

Mexico: Security for journalists is a serious issue, since Mexico has one of the highest rates of journalist murders worldwide. After more than two years of negotiations, Mexico’s Senate unanimously passed a law on April 24 that offers federal government protection to journalists, ranging from bodyguards and equipment to temporary relocation. In March, Mexico’s Senate also unanimously passed another law in favor of reporters that must now gain the approval of a majority of the country’s states. The reform changes Article 73 of the Constitution, which transfers the investigation of crimes against journalists from the state and local level to federal authorities. Consequently, the federal government would be responsible for investigating “any crime against journalists, people, or outlets that affects, limits, or impinges upon the right to information and freedom of expression and the press.” An article from the Committee to Protect Journalists explains that corruption among law enforcement officials—as well as widespread impunity for journalist murders—is common at the state level.

However, a bill proposed by federal Congressman Josué Valdés Huez seeks to reform the country’s penal code and federal law on radio and television to prohibit the media from showing criminal suspects who have not yet been charged. The reform seeks to crack down on televised press conferences of organized crime suspects, which Valdés argues creates “false idols” for children. The law is currently under consideration in Mexico’s congress.

Peru: The Andean country’s Congress is considering a bill known as the Ley Mordaza (Gag Law), which would alter article 162 of Peru’s penal code. Proposed in December of last year, the law would make it a crime to publish phone calls and electronic communication and would carry jail sentences for publishing illegally intercepted phone calls. President Ollanta Humala approved the law in January, sending it back to Congress for a final vote.  Congress’ Commission for Justice and Human Rights approved the law in March, but requires a majority vote to pass the bill. Peruvian journalist groups believe the law would inhibit information access and freedom of expression. Learn More: