I was sent this report this week by one of my colleagues in the World Bank. It speaks for itself. And it reinforces the need for serious attention to be paid to the strengthening of the media as an institution of accountability in developing countries. Here's the press release accompanying the report.
Report Issues Stinging Indictment of News Censorship, Abuse of Public Money, Across Latin America
Bogotá, Columbia, August 11, 2008—Rampant government interference with press freedom threatens editorial independence and access to unbiased news in seven Latin American countries, according to a groundbreaking report released today. The study catalogues abuses in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Peru, and Uruguay, including the widespread use of public funds to reward or punish news coverage.
“Millions of dollars are tossed around by government officials trying to buy favorable coverage—a situation made worse by low salaries and lack of job security for many journalists,” said Darian Pavli, one of the report’s authors and an attorney with the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Authorities in Latin America have long used violence, legal harassment, and intimidation to silence outspoken journalists. Today’s report uncovers a less obvious but growing trend of officials using financial incentives and regulatory powers to control the press.
“This ‘soft’ censorship can chill entire newsrooms and yet remains invisible to the public,” said Roberto Saba, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights, the report’s co-publisher. “Immediate reforms are necessary, including a commitment at all levels of government to reform advertising laws and stop blackmailing the media.”
The 200-page report documents various types of interference, including evidence of direct government payments to journalists in Colombia and Peru; local authorities in Chile dictating what journalists can write about; and a high-ranking official in Costa Rica attempting to use advertising contracts to influence the outcome of a protracted political battle.
“Without an independent press, no country can enjoy the benefits of a vibrant democracy, yet too many governments in Latin America tend to treat the media like a newsletter,” said Maria Teresa Rondero, board chair of the Colombian Freedom of Press Foundation, which contributed to the investigation.
According to the study, governments across the region abuse regulatory powers to manipulate the news. In broadcasting, in particular, governments have routinely abused licensing laws to benefit political cronies and keep independent voices off the air. For example, Uruguay is only recently coming to terms with its long history of political favoritism that affects the distribution of broadcast licenses. Authorities also retaliate against critical coverage. In Honduras, officials suspended telephone service to a national radio station, while local Argentine authorities shuttered a printing press.
The report offers several recommendations to governments, media outlets, and journalist associations to combat the problems, including increased transparency in state advertising. Other recommendations include empowering auditing agencies to investigate unlawful financial practices.
The Price of Silence: The Growing Threat of Soft Censorship in Latin America was jointly produced by the Association for Civil Rights (Argentina) and the Open Society Justice Initiative (New York). Country-specific research was conducted by the Freedom of Press Foundation (Colombia), Pro Acceso (Chile), the Institute of Press and Freedom of Expression (Costa Rica), the Press and Society Institute (Peru), the Uruguayan Press Association, and local researchers in Honduras.
The report is available online at: http://www.justiceinitiative.org/db/resource2?res_id=104124 .