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Latin America's media war
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 03 - 09 - 2008

Some presidents attack journalists as "filthy," "wild beasts" or "terrorists," while others just ignore reporters altogether in an escalating war between governments and the media in Latin America.
From Mexico to Argentina, newspapers, radio and television – often allied with the opposition – are hitting back with deeply negative coverage of political leaders.
The growing aggression between Latin America's leaders and the media is polarizing politics, jeopardizing press freedom and harming democracy, experts say.
"What we're seeing in a lot of Latin American countries is almost constant confrontation, with governments criticizing the media that aren't sympathetic to them.
It's intolerant and anti-democratic," said Gonzalo Marroquin, a Guatemalan newspaper editor who heads the press freedom commission at the Inter American Press Association.
But Marroquin also said some news organizations have damaged their own credibility by taking sides against leaders rather than adopting a stand-back critical attitude.
The most intense anti-media rhetoric comes from the new generation of socialists in the Andes: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and his allies Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
Not only do the three frequently use harsh words against journalists, they have also enacted or threatened to enact laws or constitutional reforms that could limit free speech.
Chavez drew fierce criticism last year when he denied a broadcast license to the nation's most-watched television station and replaced it with a state-backed channel.
Death threats
The conflict is widespread.
In Argentina, center-left President Cristina Fernandez has severely limited government contact with the press and restricted public information, while conservative President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia has publicly chastised critical journalists who have then received anonymous death threats.
The confrontation has led to a decline in journalistic quality, which had improved in the 1990s after the dangerous times in the 1970s and '80s when military dictatorships across much of Latin America jailed and killed journalists.
"There are a lot of media that have done little journalism and lots of politics," said Fernando Ruiz, a communications professor at Argentina's Austral University and an expert on democracy and journalism in Latin America.
Even so, he said, it threatens democracy when presidents do not recognize the legitimacy of an independent media.
"It's a huge step backward," he said.
Ecuador's President Correa says Ecuador's media groups are a threat to democracy and to his reform program.
"A free press is fundamental for democracy, but media who don't defend the truth, who defend pocketbooks, are terrible for democracy," Correa said recently in Paraguay where he went for the swearing in of new leftist President Fernando Lugo.
Correa said most broadcasters in Ecuador are owned by industrialists and bankers, and he pledged to restrict such businesses from owning media in his new constitution.
"Dictators are irritated by the free press," huffed Paraguay's ABC Color newspaper in response, saying it didn't need lessons on media repression after suffering censorship during the 35-year regime of strongman Alfredo Stroessner.
Morales, who has angered conservatives with his drive to reform Bolivia's constitution and break up big landholdings, has a point when he says the media are out to destroy him.
Most of Bolivia's five television channels, 18 newspapers and three radio networks are strongly anti-Morales, says Erick Torrico, director of the National Media Monitor, a Bolivian research group.
However, Morales' anti-media rhetoric is dangerous because it motivates his followers to attack journalists.
"This is turning into more and more frequent aggressions against journalists, against their offices and their vehicles.
That never used to happen in Bolivia where journalists were really respected," Torrico said.
Correa, Morales and Chavez see themselves as outsider presidents who must weaken traditional elites and set up sympathetic media groups to survive.
Chavez has poured resources into pro-government radio stations and newspapers, and in 2005 launched the Telesur television network across Latin America to give positive coverage to his allies.
As a result, Venezuela's media is so polarized that pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez television stations seem to be covering two different countries.
Chavez also funds Bolivian radio stations that deliver pro-Morales news in Spanish and in Indian languages.
Revolutionary reporters in red berets have tossed out journalism handbooks – they believe any criticism of the government is part of a plot to block deep changes in society.
"Politics have eaten up a lot of good journalists and made them into political actors.
This political polarization has strangled the development of journalism," Ruiz said. - Reuters __


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