DANGER South of the Border  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features :    FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   April 1992

DANGER South of the Border   

While the U.S. press sends cash and coaching to help its colleagues in Eastern Europe, journalists in Latin America are fighting for their liberty and their lives.

By James McClatchy
James McClatchy, publisher and chairman of the board of McClatchy Newspapers, is president of IAPA.      

No longer are reporters and editors being jailed or executed for exercising free speech in Eastern Europe – but they are regularly threatened and murdered in Latin America. No longer are business employees of newspapers disappearing in Poland, Hungary, Czech-oslovakia or Romania because their newspaper offended some powerful interest – but they still disappear in Latin America. No longer are journalists in Eastern Europe censoring themselves for fear of offending somebody – but they are in Latin America.

At least 19 journalists have been killed in the war in Yugoslavia, and undoubtedly there will be more as civil war and the turmoil in the former Soviet bloc countries or republics continues. But no Latin American countries are at war, and boundaries are settled. Guerrilla war, assassinations and other terrible events there are part of ordinary life, not a reflection of organized warfare.

While this comparison is startling, what is shocking is the relative lack of concern of most of the U.S. and Canadian press for their colleagues to the South. North American journalists, production experts and others have gone to Eastern Europe to train people in the techniques of a free press. This has been a marvelous outpouring of help, with substantial amounts of money and machinery for new publications. It's a good cause.

Yet it is like pulling teeth to get North American newspapers to participate in programs supporting a free press in Latin America. As exciting and nerve-racking as events are in Eastern Europe, what happens south of the border – particularly in Mexico – will have much more profound long-term effects on the United States and Canada.

All over Latin America, editors, reporters, business managers, circulation directors and other staff people are subjected to enormous pressures if their papers have the courage to report controversial events in their communities. An impressive percentage of them are as heroic as those who called for liberty in Eastern Europe.

In September 1991 terrorists kidnapped Cristián Edwards, an editor of El Mercurio of Santiago, Chile's largest newspaper, and a member of the family that owns the paper. Five months later he was released, presumably after a ransom was paid. Perfunctory reports of his disappearance and release may have appeared in some news briefs in some North American papers but to most it was a non-event.

If a prominent editor had been kidnapped in one of the Eastern European countries or former Soviet republics by a terrorist group, the matter would have attracted great attention in the United States. Statements of concern and offers of help and so on would have come from the U.S. and probably the Canadian newspaper world.

A free press must exist in Latin America if the democracies there are to survive, and their survival is crucial to the well-being and security of the United States and Canada. Actions to intimidate the press in Latin America are a danger to the U.S. just as they are in Eastern Europe. In Latin America they are common and sometimes dramatic.

In Venezuela in February, after a military coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez failed, the government sent censors to selected newspapers, TV stations and magazines. Officials also visited the executives of the country's major newspapers, asking them to self-censor stories about the coup, its causes and consequences. Police told editors of El Nacional, the country's major paper, they would have "problems" if they published an ad criticizing the president and his administration. The censors forced El Nacional to kill a story critical of the president. The editors, to their credit, left white space on the page where the story would have gone.

In addition, the government confiscated most of the press run of an important daily, El Nuevo País, because the paper reported on the social unrest that precipitated the attempted coup. Police also raided the offices of a weekly newsmagazine to confiscate what copies they could find after it printed a front-page photo of the leader of the failed coup.

Not every North American news organization is oblivious to such situations. The Inter American Press Association, made up of journalists from North America, the Caribbean and Central and South America, was instrumental in getting the president of Venezuela to rescind his censorship orders. This change of heart occurred after IAPA members and executives of major Venezuelan papers met with the president.

Miami-based IAPA, formed in 1942 to help newspapers resist the pressures and violence of dictators, reports on and tries to prevent the persecution of journalists. But IAPA's modest resources limit what it can do. The group rejects government funds, operating on fees from seminars, foundation grants and member newspapers' dues. But only 105 U.S. papers are individual members, and although 18 corporate U.S. members represent 741 papers, dues income from the 105 individual papers is substantially more than that from the 741 owned by the corporations.

The one time U.S. papers gave substantial cash occurred after narco-terrorists blew up the offices of El Espectador in Colombia in 1989. IAPA and the American Newspaper Publishers Association raised $1.75 million and loaned it to El Espectador for new presses and reconstruction. It was a wonderful gesture, but a single gesture; and a loan, not a gift.

It is hard to make a living publishing or working on a small or medium-sized newspaper in most Latin American towns. There isn't much money. Larger newspapers there have strengths and many have been prosperous, but most of them, big and small, are part of fragile democratic societies. These governments are overwhelmed with problems of exploding populations, entrenched corruption, weak judicial systems, terrorism and all kinds of destructive exploitation of people and resources. A major element in the survival of those democracies will be the strength of their newspapers.

American newspaper executives understandably are excited about building a free press in Eastern Europe. But what about helping those in our own backyard? l