Claims some Latin-American governments promote plans to “asphyxiate” the independent press through #SoftCensorship

Independent media in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela are under serious attack from soft censorship – a combination of administrative and financial practices used by government’s to favour positive coverage and punish critical reporting. That’s the view of Argentina’s DYN news agency and Vice President of the country’s Press Association (ADEPA), Daniel Dessein. He spoke to Mariona Sanz.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | May 27, 2015

What indirect censorship practices are promoted in Latin America?

Dessein: In the region there are many subtle censorship practices. In some countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Argentina, the viability and sustainability of the independent press is at stake. Many media have disappeared or are limited by legal and para-legal tools. They are structuring similar asphyxiation plans, with many legal tools applied in a selective and discriminatory manner against the media.

Can you describe these ‘plans of suffocation’?

Dessein: They include the use of public resources to build a state communication apparatus [meaning politicised public broadcasters and government-friendly private media], the enactment of laws influencing media content, the pressure of tax agencies on newspaper companies, or restricting access to paper, which is meaning the disappearance of many newspapers in Venezuela, among other discriminatory practices.

Are these practices ‘subtle’?

Dessein: Governments try to disguise pressures with legal loopholes…but that does not mean that the attacks against freedom of expression are weaker. In the case of Venezuela, the abuses are obvious and brutal. But in Ecuador, the Communications Law…is emblematic [of] an effort to legitimize the offensive against the independent press. It creates unusual crimes such as ‘media lynching’… And it stipulates fines, and eventually closings, not only for what is published, but also for the content that is not disclosed.

Could you provide specific examples?

Dessein: President Correa received an honorary doctorate in Chile and some newspapers were reported for not publishing sufficient information on it. El Universo was sentenced to pay compensation of 40 million dollars for an article on a police mutiny that Correa denounced as a coup. This fine was almost equivalent to the value of the newspaper at the time. In another case [in Ecuador], the cartoonist Xavier Bonilla, alias Bonil, had to publicly apologize for a cartoon, in addition to the fine falling on the newspaper. Many other media such as La HoraExtraExpreso or El Comercio have suffered different types of legal convictions.

Is financial pressure also used to manipulate the media?

Dessein: Of course. States use control bodies to exercise it. The compulsory insurance for workers in the media sector in Bolivia is suffocating the media. We are also seeing purchase of media companies by businessmen [who] are threatening press freedom. In Nicaragua, except for one channel, the rest of TV stations are controlled by the Mexican businessman Angel Gonzalez or by the presidential family. This phenomenon is transnational.

Is the allocation of government advertising an instrument of pressure?

Dessein: Yes, and it has increased in recent years. Usually there is no standard governing the distribution of government advertising, which is released at the discretion of officials.

At the same time, there is also pressure on private advertisers to stop advertising in certain media. In Argentina, the main advertisers of newspapers are, along with the state, household appliances chains and supermarkets, which account for 20% of the revenues of advertising. In 2013 these companies were pressed and systematically all advertisers pulled out their ads for one year, which put the financial viability of many media at risk. When the then Trade Secretary left the political scene and was sent to an embassy in Italy, immediately advertising returned to the media. These are difficult cases to prove, but officials are pressuring the large advertiser, conditioning and threatening it with tax investigations, for example.

What happens elsewhere in Latin America, such as for example in Chile, Peru or Colombia?

 Dessein: In other countries we find distortions of a much lesser degree. Although there are levels of discretion, there is a huge distance. In the countries of the Bolivarian orbit, the press has been demonized and marked as the political opponent of the Government, strategically displacing opposition parties. The opposite occurs in countries such as Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil, with a much friendlier government discourse and a more fluid relationship with the media. The strategic decision to place the press in the place of the opposition and try to control, subdue and create a communications device that responds to the state to override dissenting voices creates a democratic imbalance. This is very much linked to the populist governments with an anti-liberal model. 

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has worked on standards to regulate the allocation of government advertising. Are these legal instruments useful?

Dessein: Yes, they serve as ideal models and parameters. In Argentina we are close to a presidential election, and many of the media experts of the candidates try to translate these standards into concrete projects. In fact, some projects have already been presented at Congress. Any regulation that complies with objective criteria and reduces levels of discretion will be a step forward. Peru, for example, has a law that responds greatly to the Latin American standards. For other countries, approaching or incorporating some of these principles to limit abuses would be already a huge advance.

Note: Daniel Dessein will be one of the panellists of the session The New Age of Censorship and Intimidation in the World News Media Congress 2015.

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