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Governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua strangle press freedom, while impunity prevails in Bolivia and Mexico

Protesters take part in a massive rally against Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, 2 February 2019
Protesters take part in a massive rally against Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, 2 February 2019

Marcelo Perez Del Carpio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This is a translation of the original article.

Thus far, 2019 is showing little promise. Just 30 days into the New Year, additional aggravating circumstances have added to the already complicated situation that was experienced in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018.

Venezuela and its latest socio-political upheaval grabbed nearly all the headlines and attention in January. On 23 January 2019, Venezuelans celebrated their "return to democracy" as they do every year, commemorating the end of the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958. Now, six decades after that victory, thousands of Venezuelans who oppose the government of Nicolás Maduro took to the streets in hopes of a similar outcome in 2019.

And when National Assembly President Juan Guaidó invoked articles of the Constitution and vowed to take on presidential powers in order to call new elections, many saw this 23 January as a new and historical return to democracy in the country.

The situation resulted in political and diplomatic chaos with some countries recognising Guaidó as the new interim president, while others sided with Maduro. Demonstrations continued on an intermittent basis and there was a deluge of analyses from both within and outside the country. Venezuela's political future remains unclear.

In the midst of the upheaval, freedom of expression and the ability to conduct journalism in Venezuela have seriously deteriorated, according to observations and reports from both local and international organisations. In fact, the 23 IFEX-ALC member organisations, which defend freedom of expression and freedom of the press in 15 Latin American and Caribbean countries, issued a statement condemning the freedom of expression violations and serious limitations on the work of journalists.

Among the freedom of expression violations that took place in January, the organisations reported on arbitrary detentions of at least 12 journalists and their assistants. Ana Rodríguez and Maiker Yriarte, along with their Chilean colleagues from 24 Horas TVN, Rodrigo Pérez and Gonzalo Barahona, were among those detained. Brazilian journalist Rodrigo Lopes, from the RBS group, and a team from the EFE agency, made up of Spanish journalist Gonzalo Domínguez Loeda, reporter Mauren Barriga Vargas and photographer Leonardo Muñoz, rounded out the list of those arrested.

IFEX-ALC also commented on censorship orders against radio hosts and raids on regional television stations, as well as attacks on journalists covering demonstrations. In addition, Internet sites have been blocked or are no longer in service.

A report by several Venezuelan organisations, including IFEX member IPYS Venezuela, stated that Internet-related issues included the blocking of Wikipedia days before the demonstrations and obstructions to social media networks a few days later, during the protests. The attacks increased in synchrony with the increasing political tensions.

Within this gloomy scenario, freedom of expression defenders have continued on with their work. On 14 January, IFEX-ALC submitted an Amicus Curiae brief to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in support of lawyer and university professor Tulio Álvarez. Álvarez was sentenced to two years in prison for writing an opinion column referring to corruption allegations against a government official.

The Amicus Curiae brief was taken into account during a 28 and 29 January hearing of Álvarez's case in Costa Rica. The case is one of many in which the government and powerful elites have used criminal and civil law to intimidate, censor and pursue journalists and the media.

The criminalisation of journalism is a weapon used by many governments in Latin America and the Caribbean - a weapon that does not require bullets. As the Álvarez case was being heard in Costa Rica, the Supreme Court of Honduras ratified a 2016 ruling condemning journalist David Romero Ellner to 10 years in prison for defamation.

And while the turmoil in Venezuela may have removed Nicaragua from the limelight, the deplorable situation in the Central American country has not improved. Attacks and persecution of the media continued throughout January, with journalists and social activists who question President Daniel Ortega's regime finding themselves in the crosshairs.

On 20 January, the Committee to Protect Journalists and more than 200 media professionals submitted a letter to Ortega expressing their deep concern over the deterioration in press freedom in the country. According to this large group, dozens of assaults on the media were documented in 2018.

In addition to the above, two independent monitoring bodies established by the Organisation of American States (OAS) were expelled from Nicaragua just a day before one of them was set to release a report on their findings. The report provided an account of the human rights violations that took place during demonstrations that began in Nicaragua in April 2018. For those evaluating the situation, the expulsion represents "another disturbing example" of the Nicaraguan government's "disregard for transparency and international human rights norms."

Meanwhile, journalists Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda Ubau, from the 100% Noticias news channel, were finally able to see their families and lawyers on 30 January after having been held incommunicado for a month. The two journalists are facing multiple charges involving offenses against the state. The proceedings against them are ongoing and they have now been transferred to separate units in the penitentiary system.

In addition, prominent journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who has been critical of Ortega, decided to leave the country in order to escape political persecution. It should be noted that his father, Pedro Chamorro, also a journalist, was assassinated during the Somoza era decades ago.

Ongoing impunity

In Bolivia, impunity in cases of attacks on journalists and the imposition of the thirteenth law that provides for confiscation of resources from private media outlets have highlighted the ongoing government policies that strangle journalism. An analysis by the Bolivian National Press Association, an IFEX member, disclosed this information.
Meanwhile, on 23 January, the Opinión Bolivian daily received a bomb threat from unidentified individuals. The daily was warned that they would be attacked if they published a particular article.

At the same time, disappearances and assassinations of journalists are ongoing in Mexico. The most recent case is that of Rafael Murúa Manriquez, who disappeared and was later assassinated by unidentified individuals on 20 January. Murúa Manriquez was director of the Radio Kashanay community radio station, which broadcasts from the community of Santa Rosalía, Baja California Sur. Radio Kashanay is a member of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC).

But all is not lost. Thanks to the hard and persistent work of several organisations - including the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), an IFEX member - a new and important stage in the case of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was reached. On 16 January, nearly 19 years after Bedoya Lima was kidnapped, tortured and sexually assaulted, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced it had approved its Merits Report on the journalist's case. The approval of the Merits Report opens the door for the Colombian state to be tried before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for its role in the case.

If you enjoyed this, check out all the January regional roundups!

Asia & Pacific
Europe & Central Asia
Middle East & North Africa

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