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The Creeping Threat of Covert Censorship in Latin America

By: PanAm Post Staff - Mar 31, 2015, 3:03 pm

EspañolThe rise of “21st-century socialism” across Latin America over the last two decades has led to populist initiatives to “democratize” the media — or, in other words, force the press to fit their ideological mold.

It’s been premised on the idea that traditional media has been concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, such as Clarín in Argentina, Rede Globo in Brazil, or Cadena Capriles and Globovisión in Venezuela. The argument goes that these media outlets distorted their news converge to favor their owners, prevented informed public debate, and promoted reactionary “soft coups” across the continent.

En varios países de la región, el desprestigio desde el Estado de la labor del periodista es una práctica cotidiana (Knight Center)
In several Latin American nations, ideologically motivated harassment of reporters is an everyday perk. (Knight Center)

In recent years, legislators across Latin America have passed controversial media laws in their respective countries, or regulatory overhauls to redistribute television, radio, and press licenses more “fairly.”

Governments attempting to maintain democratic appearances can’t very well engage in outright censorship. While physical violence and overt interference in the press may have declined, an equally devious and effective way to silence unpopular news and opinion emerged.

Recently, a group of Latin-American academics, politicians, and journalists gathered in Uruguay for the Freedom of the Press Colloquium and denounced the rise of a covert censorship apparatus that facilitates state harassment, gives privileged access for government voices, and allows officials to go unquestioned.

Populist governments in Venezuela and Argentina, for example, now control and restrict the very newsprint necessary for print media to publish their journals. In Ecuador, the government has launched campaigns of harassment against journalists that aim to intimidate and discredit their targets.

According to the Inter-American Press Association’s 2014 report, Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and Ecuador have the most restrictive speech and press laws in Latin America. In Venezuela, the ruling party has created heavily subsidized state outlets to peddle their official narrative, and strangled the independent media with regulations.

Following this playbook, the Venezuelan government has in one fashion or another bought out Globovisión, Cadena Capriles, and El Universal, along with 25 other newspapers and television stations that have all markedly reduced their criticism of the Maduro administration.

After being acquired by mysterious firms with ties to the ruling Chavista elite, these outlets changed their editorial line; censorship and layoffs ensued, and their reporting no longer posed any threats to the “Revolution.” Now the Maduro regime is going after social media, the last resort for Venezuelans to go around the official media blockade.

In Ecuador, state harassment of journalists is a constant feature. President Rafael Correa himself has led the charge against freedom of the press, resorting to all kinds of legal workarounds to censor criticism.

In his weekly show on state television, he slanders reporters, then shamelessly tells his supporters to go after them. Such is the level of intimidation that renowned journalists like Janet Hinostroza have been forced to leave their jobs after airing news that damaged the image of Correa’s “Citizen Revolution.”

Following the passage of Ecuador’s own media law in June 2014, national daily Hoy (on shelves since 1982) was forced to close shop, financially strangled by onerous new regulations.

Correa created two state regulatory agencies manned by 300 employees to monitor and control newspapers, radio stations, and television networks: Cordicom and Supercom. Ecuador’s Communication Secretariat (Secom) furthermore forces all television channels to air a Secom-produced campaign where they attack critical reporters.

As if that weren’t enough, it emerged last week that Correa has his own “troll center” tasked with defending his government from accusations and targeting critics on social media. The strategy has worked, unfortunately: many owners of humorous and parody accounts have decided to shut down over threats and potential retaliation. Not even famous artists are spared from these “soft censorship” tactics, as prosecutors conjure trumped-up accusations of discriminatory cartoons.

The ugly truth is that Latin-American governments are indeed trying to the change concentration of media, but they’re simply awarding them to another closed elite — those aligned with the socialist project.

Far from the purported goals of combating “media terrorism” and securing a fair representation of different views, governments merely want to neutralize rising opposition to a failing model. Their power trip at the crest of Latin America’s “revolutionary” wave depends on them covering up their manifold mistakes along the way.