CPJ Report: Journalism is a Risky Business in Latin America

By Dialogo
February 25, 2013

Décio Sá had become one of the most influential journalists in the northern Brazilian state of Maranhão ever since launching his own news blog in 2006. Though he worked for O Estado de Maranhão, the state’s largest newspaper, he made a name for himself by writing Blog do Décio, which covered politics and organized crime.
“He was very aggressive,” said Maranhão Police Chief Aluísio Mendes. “Everybody read his blog.”
But on Apr. 23, 2012, Sá was shot three times in the head by a gunman who fled on a motorcycle. That made him one of four Brazilian journalists killed in direct relation to their work in 2012 — the highest annual death toll in more than a decade. Four other Brazilian reporters were murdered last year for reasons that have yet to be determined.
Brazil reported about as many journalist homicides last year as Mexico, where clashes between rival drug trafficking cartels have killed tens of thousands in recent years. The murders of Sá and his reporter colleagues have earned Brazil a spot on the Risk List published by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
CPJ: Latin American journalists face ‘serious challenges’
The Risk List is part of an extensive CPJ report called Attacks on the Press 2012, released Feb. 14. Besides in-depth descriptions of Brazil’s troubles, the report provides chilling details about killings, attacks and threats against journalists in Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico.
“Despite the fact that democracy has consolidated in most of the region, Latin American journalists still face serious challenges when reporting the news,” CPJ Americas Director Carlos Lauria told Diálogo. “In countries like Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, and Colombia, journalists who cover crime and corruption are still being killed and disappeared with impunity, and threats are taking a huge toll on investigative journalism.”
These same nations fared poorly in another index published last month by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Brazil, for example, fell nine places in the annual RSF index while Mexico ended up in 153rd place out of 179 nations.
As Mexican drug cartels have transferred some of their operations to Central America, Honduras has posted one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Some of the victims have been journalists writing about drug trafficking, organized crime, corruption and land disputes. At least 14 reporters have been killed there since 2010.
Especially shocking was the May 2012 kidnapping and murder of Ángel Alfredo Villatoro, 47, a prominent Honduran host and news coordinator at HRN, one of the country’s most widely listened-to radio stations. He was also a friend of President Porfirio Lobo.
Villatoro’s body was found on a sidewalk dressed in the uniform of a special operations police unit and with a red handkerchief covering his face. He had two gunshot wounds to the head.
Colombia’s FARC continues threatening journalists
In Colombia, fewer journalists are being killed than in the 1980s and 1990s, the most violent years of the country’s guerrilla and drug war. However, CPJ found that reporters faced threats from illegal armed groups in the months leading up to peace talks between the government and Marxist guerrillas.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) also kidnapped French reporter Roméo Langlois and held him for more than a month, marking the first abduction of an international journalist in Colombia since 2003.
Given their countries’ violent histories, the dangers for Colombian and Mexican journalists isn’t surprising to analysts. What’s more troubling, they say, is growing hostility towards the media in Brazil. That’s because Brazil now occupies a prominent role on the world stage as both a political and economic powerhouse.
And in most cases, the targeted reporters, like Sá, worked for small news outlets in the provinces or published their own blogs.
These reporters “are calling out corruption and are being targeted,” said Gabriel Elizondo, the São Paulo correspondent for Al-Jazeera. “The profile is usually the same: It's a small-town journalist, working for a small outlet, who gets gunned down.”
Self-censorship is the norm in Mexico
Like Brazil, Mexico was a particularly deadly place for journalists in 2012.
Both RSF and CPJ tallied six murders of journalists, though it was unclear if they were all work-related. In one case, Mexican freelance journalist Adrían Silva Moreno was shot to death in the city of Puebla shortly after gathering information on a large-scale gasoline theft, and then witnessing a shootout between soldiers and gunmen.
“Mexico maintained its status as the hemisphere’s most dangerous country for the media,” the RSF report said.
A growing problem in Mexico is self-censorship by journalists who are afraid they’ll be killed if they report on the activities of the Zetas and other drug trafficking organizations. The CPJ noted that drug cartels now dominate many Mexican states — but that because of previous killings and an atmosphere of intimidation, journalists have done very little actual reporting on the phenomenon.
In most cases, killing reporters is unnecessary; a simple threat via phone call or text message will do.
“This is the pattern now in many Mexican states: Cartels gain control, the press is intimidated, and the public is uninformed,” the CPJ report said. “And since there are no deaths among local journalists, there is no attention drawn to the pervasive problem of self-censorship.”
In the northern state of Zacatecas, a Zetas stronghold, even correspondents for the Mexico City-based media have been virtually silenced. “The state has been taken over by homicidal gangsters, and people who rely on the Mexican national press still don't know,” said the CPJ.
Insight Crime, a think tank that tracks organized crime in Latin America, said violence and intimidation of reporters has increased in tandem with the growing influence of the Zetas. The organization’s methods have, in turn, been imitated by rival cartels.
“Press blackouts have become an all-too-common objective for Mexican gangs,” Insight Crime said in a recent report. “The result is that one of the principal checks against criminal impunity — an aggressive press corps — is impossible in precisely the cities where organized crime does most of its harm.”