Politicians Behind Recent Attacks Against Latin American Journalists
Leaders Must Accept Scrutiny of their Actions, IPI Says
By: Scott Griffen, IPI Associate
VIENNA, April 30, 2012 - The International Press Institute (IPI) today condemned a recent series of physical and verbal attacks against journalists in Argentina, Honduras, and Panama allegedly at the hands of politicians.
IPI Acting Deputy Director Anthony Mills said, "These alleged incidents underscore the reality that political figures are far too often behind attacks on the media in Latin America. Journalists who dare to investigate corruption or abuse of office risk being singled out for violent revenge. "
Mills added, "This is particularly true in regional areas, where local leaders wield disproportionate power and where federal oversight is absent. Politicians at all levels need to respect the fact that, in a democracy, their position entails greater scrutiny of their actions."
According to IPI research, organised crime and local politicians were the main enemies of the Latin American press in 2011. The region was the world’s most dangerous for the media last year, with 30 journalists killed. Seven journalists have been killed in Latin America so far in 2012, according to IPI’s Death Watch.
A prominent local journalist was punched in the face by a city council president after attempting to read aloud a section of the provincial constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression during a closed council session on 18 April, Argentinian media reported.
Daniel Luna, who owns Canal 4 television station and edits the news site Actualidad Sur, told media that the meetings of the Candelaria City Council in Misiones province had been closed to the press since March. He and several colleagues entered the council building anyway and sought to read the passage to Jorge Peña, the body's president, in protest.
"Suddenly they punched me and I fell to the ground, where I received numerous kicks from [Peña], [who was] totally out of control" the journalist recounted, according to news reports. A colleague who attempted to push Peña away was also struck and shoved to the ground, Luna said.
The startling incident was captured on video and later uploaded to ActualidadSur's YouTube channel.
The Argentine Journalist's Forum (FOPEA, based on its Spanish acronym) condemned "the grave act of aggression" against Luna and demanded that authorities immediately investigate and sanction Peña.
In early April, FOPEA expressed its "profound concern" over a series of attacks on journalists that had occurred in the preceding weeks. The group said that despite the fact that the incidents had occurred in different cirumstances and in different parts of the country, "all of them constitute a threat to the free exercise of journalism and the possibility of seraching for information, a central element for the citizens of a democracy."
In Honduras, a radio journalist reported on his morning program that he was attacked and threatened with death by members of the country's Liberal Party. The Honduras Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre) reported that the journalist, Rony Espinoza of Radio Globo, was covering a Liberal Party gathering in Tegucigalpa on April 19 when he attempted to follow and speak with a priest who suddenly departed from the meeting.
According to Espinoza, various party members, including a cabinet minister under former president Manuel Zelaya, moved to intercept him. The journalist told C-Libre: "Upon seeing the blockade I decided to turn on my tape recorder, but the reaction of those men was violent ... [one] elbowed me sharply and [another] asked me in a threatening manner: do you want to die?"
The Liberal Party is currently led by Roberto Micheletti, who briefly took power in June 2009 after the party's former leader, Manuel Zelaya, was removed from the presidency in what numerous international observers called a coup d'état. The Liberal Party's candidate was defeated in November 2009 presidential elections.
The assault on Espinoza occurred days before a popular Honduran televison presenter, Noel Alexander Valladares, was assassinated as he left his studios in Tegucigalpa.
President Ricardo Martinelli last week was accused of verbally humiliating a television journalist whom he accused of having a drug addiction during a press conference, Panamanian media reported.
Martinelli reportedly became irritated after the journalist, Hugo Famanía, of RPC Televisión, questioned him on April 19 about a growing corruption scandal involving the president's alleged awarding of prison contracts to several Italian construction firms.
The president responded, "I don't know if you are having problems with your old habit or what ... hopefully you won't fall into the scourge of drugs again." Moments later Martinelli added, "For the love of God, Hugo. You have had drug problems [but] that doesn't mean that's why I'm not going to talk to you."
Bowing to the furor surrounding his remarks, the president on Monday offered a public apology to Famanía, explaining that sometimes [these questions] "drive you crazy." But he admitted, "I believe I shouldn't have spoken the remarks in the way that I did."
The president of Panama's Journalists Union, Filemón Medina, condemned the president's "vile and destructive attack" against a journalist "who was asking questions about the links between this government and corruption scandals."
Catalina Botero, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, joined the chorus of disapproval, affirming that any direct or indirect intimidation towards journalists is an attack on freedom of expression, Panamanian media reported.
IPI's Mills added: "While we welcome his apology, it was nevertheless disappointing to see Panama's president belittle a journalist for doing his job. At a time in which Latin American politicians are largely behind attacks on the media, we urge the president to set a better example."
Martinelli's comments prompted hundreds of journalists to stage a protest in front of the presidential palace, demanding that the government respect the rights of the media, according to news reports. Following the march, Panamanian media reported that protest leaders met briefly with the president to urge him to end what they have called a broad campaign to discredit journalists in the Central American country.