Latin America's Growing Press Freedom Troubles
Latin America's Growing Press Freedom Troubles

by Andres Oppenheimer

A new report on press freedoms worldwide contains a chilling figure: Only 2 percent of Latin Americans live in countries with a free press. But I wonder whether the report paints an accurate picture of what's going on in the region.

Before we get into that, let's look at the main conclusions of the "Freedom of the Press 2014: A global survey of media independence" report by Freedom House, one of the oldest and most influential human rights advocacy groups in Washington, D.C.

According to the report, global press freedom has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade, mainly because of a major regression in Egypt, Libya and Jordan, and less dramatic but significant setbacks throughout the world.

Even in the United States, one of the few countries in the Americas that Freedom House still classifies as "Free," there has been a shift for the worse. Government snooping practices revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden and the targeted surveillance of the phones of Associated Press journalists are serious reasons for concern, the report says.

In the new report, the United States has a score of 21 on a scale of 1 to 100, going from the freest ones (1) to the most repressive (100). The only three Latin American countries that make the category of "Free" are Costa Rica (18), Uruguay (26) and Suriname (28).

Among Latin America's "Partly Free" countries, Chile ranks 31st, only one position away from the group rated as "Free," Peru ranks 44th and Panama 50th. Brazil ranks 45th, because of attacks on journalists, legal actions against bloggers and government actions to remove content from Internet companies, and Argentina, ranked 51st, remains "a country of concern" in part because of the government's ongoing verbal attacks on critical journalists.

Among the Latin American countries rated "Not Free" are Ecuador (62), where the government passed laws to silence the media, and Honduras (64) and Mexico (61), where drug trafficking and organized crime violence is keeping much of the media muzzled, the report says.

Further along the list, indicating that they are even less free, are Venezuela (78), where the government has bought the last remaining critical media outlets, such as the Globovision, through government cronies, and Cuba (90), one of the world's most repressive countries, it says.

But I wonder whether the Freedom House report paints an accurate picture of media freedoms in Latin America.

Is it fair to put Cuba, where non-government media are officially banned, in the same "Not Free" category as Mexico? Or to put Brazil's national media, which expose government corruption on a daily basis, with Brazilian state media and local media that are often silenced by governors or mayors?

If you go Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City, it's really difficult to believe that these countries live in a non-free media environment. In fact, in many of these places, you see vibrant independent media that in many cases are doing a better job in exposing government and corporate abuses than the increasingly frivolous U.S. media.

If you go to Brazil, you will find big headlines in the national media about a Petrobras national oil company's financial scandal that is tainting President Dilma Rousseff's office. Brazil's national media - especially Veja magazine and dailies such as Folha de Sao Paulo and O Estado de Sao Paulo - have also exposed the mensalao scandal of bribes paid by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government to legislators, which has resulted in prison sentences to key former Lula aides.

In Argentina, despite President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's efforts to silence the media, television anchorman Jorge Lanata has denounced massive corruption in Kirchner government contracts with businessman Lazaro Baez, while the daily La Nacion's investigative reporter Hugo Alconada Mon has revealed scores of shady government deals, including one in which Vice President Amado Boudou, in a previous government job, pardoned millions in back taxes to a company he later allegedly acquired.

My opinion: The Freedom House index is a worthy effort, but it mixes apples and oranges. You can't put countries that suffer from government censorship in the same basket with others where drug gangs and organized crime try to silence the media. They are two different problems that are sometimes intertwined, but that most often require different solutions.

Having said that, it's fair to say that Latin America has a growing freedom of the press problem. The number of Latin Americans with easy access to independent journalism is probably much higher than 2 percent, but it's undeniably lower than a decade ago.