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Murders, imprisonment and violence: Threats to press freedom grow in Latin America

Analysis by Esteban Campanela and Sol Amaya, CNNE

(CNN) — At least five journalists were killed in Mexico last year, dozens have been arbitrarily arrested in Cuba and Venezuela, and others forced to flee Nicaragua due to harassment. These are just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges faced by many media workers in Latin America, where experts say the status of press freedom is increasingly worrisome.

Murder and threats in Mexico

In a report published in March, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) defined Mexico as “the most dangerous country for the press in the Western Hemisphere”.

In an interview with CNNE, Francisco Cobos, a Mexican-American journalist for Univision, recounted his attempted kidnapping by armed men in Tamaulipas on April 26. They forced him to stop his car, pointed a gun at him and tried to force him into an alley. Miraculously he managed to flee. “There is no longer a place where you are safe,” said Cobos.

Since he resides in McAllen, Texas, Cobos filed a complaint there and not in Mexico. Upon learning of the incident, the Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged to offer him protection.

According to the CPJ report, Mexico has “the highest number of missing journalists in the world” with at least 15 professionals in 2023.

According to the rights group Article 19, in 2023 a total of 561 aggressions against the press have been registered in the country and the murders of five journalists. According to the same organization, at least 43 journalists have been killed during the administration of López Obrador, 47 during the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto and 48 during the administration of former President Felipe Calderón.

An emblematic case was that of journalist Lourdes Maldonado López, killed in January 2022 in the border city of Tijuana. In 2019, Maldonado López, who worked for several media outlets, including Televisa and Séptimo Día, told López Obrador directly in a public press conference that she feared for her life and asked him for protection. After her death, the president referred to the case, describing her death as “regrettable” and promising to investigate.

In February 2022, three people were arrested in connection with that homicide.

On April 26, a new murder was added to Mexico’s grim statistics: Roberto Figueroa, who worked in the online portal “Acá en el Show,” from Morelos. The Prosecutor’s Office confirmed in a press conference that they believed the crime was linked to his journalistic work.

López Obrador has promised security to journalists, but his relationship with the press has had several tense moments, including lashing out against CNN en Español’s Andres Oppenheimer for his interview with Argentina’s President Javier Milei, who criticized Lopez Obrador “ignorant”.

Last week, the Mexican president criticized the US State Department’s report on human rights in the world, which refers to concerns over press freedom in Mexico, saying that US authorities should “be respectful”.

Cuba: Repression and exile for the press

“In Cuba, they have killed journalism, they kidnapped the profession,” journalist Abraham Jimenez told CNN. Jimenez left the island in 2021 after a period of threats, arbitrary interrogations and house arrests.

The harassment was fueled by his reporting on Cuba’s street protests of 2021. As he recounted, Jimenez was portrayed in state media as a CIA agent, causing his friends to stay away out of fear and causing his family members to lost their jobs. “They didn’t need to shoot me, they had killed me civically,” he said.

This is how he recalls his exodus to Spain, where he now resides: “They told me: ‘We are tired of you, we are going to give you your passport, but if you don’t leave the country, you are going to jail’. I didn’t think twice, and I left’”.

According to Article 19’s report “Cuba: resistance in the face of censorship,” from January to December 2023, 274 aggressions were registered against activists and independent journalists for reporting on social discontent among the Cuban population. Among the most common reprisals by the government are arrests and suppression of Internet service.

Jiménez says that arbitrary arrests are only one of the “infinite variants” applied by the authorities to intimidate reporters. He said that other common forms of harassment include the interception of private communications, surveillance, interrogation of close circles, unofficial summonses and threats of arrest.

According to Jiménez, author of the books “La isla oculta” (2022) and “Aterrizar en el mundo” (2024), the Cuban government changed its actions towards the dissident press starting in 2015, with the arrival of the Internet on the island. “Before, if you raised your voice, you could not leave the country, they called it migratory regulation. That was my case, I didn’t have a passport. With the empowerment of the people and with the protests, the strategy to kick out journalists changed. Those who were not kicked out are in jail. There are very few left doing independent journalism.”

Cuba has rejected criticism, including from the US government. In a publication in social network X, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said US officials are not concerned about the human rights of Cubans and that the United States has its own human rights violations.

Nicaragua: Ortega-Murillo regime targets journalism

Harassment of the press in Nicaragua has been widely reported on numerous occasions. One of the most recent cases was that of the newspaper La Prensa, one of Nicaragua’s leading newspapers. On August 13, 2021, officers of the National Police occupied the building where it operated, after a raid in which its general manager, Juan Lorenzo Hollman Chamorro, was arrested and charged with the crime of money laundering. On March 24, 2022, Hollman Chamorro was found guilty and on April 1 he was sentenced to 9 years in prison. Other members of the Chamorro family were also arrested and charged with various crimes.

In 2022, the government expropriated the building where La Prensa had its newsroom and printing press; today the publication is only published online. The government also forced the closure of the television channel “100% Noticias”, owned by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who went into exile in Costa Rica, from where he continues to publish digital newspaper El Confidencial. Nicaragua no longer has a print newspaper.

According to the US State Department’s human rights report on NIcaragua, the government has outlawed more than 300 civil society organizations in 2023, bringing the number of closures to more than 3,500; stripped “more than 300 people of their citizenship and is holding more than 100 political prisoners in appalling conditions.”

Between April and June 2023, about 23 journalists left Nicaragua due to harassment, threats of imprisonment and assaults mostly by police agents, according to a report by the Regional Network “Voces del Sur” and the foundation for Freedom of Expression and Democracy.

Nicaraguan Vice President and government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo publicly stated that she was unaware of the State Department report but lashed out at Washington.  “We respond to their list of slanders, defamations and infamies by attributing them to themselves… provocateurs, aggressors, invaders and directors of choirs and orchestras made up of their local servitude. We denounce them once again as the most barbarous and savage violators of all human rights.”

Gerall Chávez used to work at the country’s Vos TV channel. In 2018, he decided to leave Nicaragua following the arrest of two colleagues and after receiving information that he was going to be arrested. Since then, he has been living as in Costa Rica, where he and his family continues to receive intimidating messages.

Chavez told CNN thatthe few independent media that remain in Nicaragua have largely “stopped reporting” to avoid reprisals. Today, he added, “there is an information blackout.”

Venezuela: Fear and self-censorship

“Doing journalism in Venezuela implies a daily effort to overcome the censorship mechanisms that have been consolidated in the country,” Edgar López, a Venezuelan journalist, told CNN en Español.

“In Venezuela, secrecy is state policy. State agencies do not provide information on matters of public interest, and, in addition, they expect the media and journalists to limit themselves to disseminating official narratives without any questioning,” he said.

“The government leadership perceives the independent press as an internal enemy. This has resulted in the consolidation of aggression patterns that range from stigmatizing discourse to physical aggressions, which tend to increase in electoral contexts such as the current one,” said López.

According to the State Department human rights report, “national and international groups condemned (President Nicolas) Maduro’s efforts throughout the year to restrict freedom of the press and create a climate of fear and self-censorship”.

The report notes that “the National College of Journalists estimated that close to 4,000 journalists emigrated from the country due to threats in the last 20 years”.

In January 2024, the State Department also reported that 33 Venezuelans are facing arrest warrants or have been detained by Venezuelan authorities for political reasons, among them several journalists.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil responded in X that the United States was “displaying its cynicism once again, preparing a report on human rights that it insists on filling with lies and falsehoods against Venezuela. Without any morals, the most hostile and deadly empire of humanity dares to talk about rights that they constantly violate and belittle”.

Ecuador: Kidnappings live on television

On January 9, 2024, a group of hooded men stormed a live news program on TC Television in Guayaquil. For several hours, the criminals held journalists and channel staff hostage in a high-tension situation that was partially televised. Hours later, after the hostages were released, several people were arrested.

“The security context that the country is experiencing is regrettable and at the same time generates repercussions against communication workers, who have become a key part to unveil the acts of corruption that are known today,” Jeannine Cruz, president of the Communication Council of Ecuador, told CNN. “One of the repercussions that this problem has caused is exiles,” she added.

A chilling effect

With political polarization across Latin America, countries across the region can shift radically from left to right depending on the president in power. But across the spectrum, many of the region’s current leaders seem to show a hostility toward journalism – particularly on social media.

Both the far-right Milei in Argentina and leftist Colombian leader Gustavo Petro have used their social networks to attack journalists and independent media, for example. And the government of El Salvador’s popular President Nayib Bukele has been criticized by local journalists for penalizing publication of information about the country’s gangs. All part of a dangerous erosion of one of the region’s fundamental pillars of democracy – the same democracy that brought these leaders, at least temporarily, to the most powerful seats in their countries.

 Gonzalo Zegarra, Rey Rodríguez, Manuela Castro, Ana María Cañizares, Ivonne Valdés, José Álvarez, Elvin Sandoval and Iván Pérez Sarmenti from CNN en Español contributed to this report.

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