More threats to press freedom across the Americas

In the Americas, there’s a growing wave of populist presidents and governments. Whether right-wing or left-wing, something they have in common is their attacks on the free press and their need to silence it. They’ve done it in recent years through physical violence (including murders), imprisonment, digital attacks, spying, and forcing journalists into exile. This will most likely get worse in 2023. The world will have to watch out: Press freedom is already threatened enough to silence an entire region in the West.

There are countries, such as Cuba, Venezuela, or Nicaragua, that have been black holes for freedom of expression and human rights for years, where journalism is almost impossible due to the lack of guarantees provided by officials and physical and judicial attacks on journalists. But other nations are falling into autocratic spirals where citizens are no longer receiving real information due to the wave of official propaganda and violence against journalists.

Mexico is an emblematic case. Since Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president in 2018, 37 journalists have been murdered, according to Article 19. In 2022 alone, 12 were murdered, and the impunity in their cases is 90%. Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world for the press. And at least two journalists have been spied on by this government with the malware Pegasus, probably by the Armed Forces. Despite all of this, the president attacks journalists daily in his press conferences.

In Central America, harassment and spying also come from governments. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has treated the independent press as a personal enemy. Many journalists at the digital news site El Faro have had to go into exile after threats of physical and legal violence. At least 22 journalists in that country have been spied on with Pegasus.

The same threats and violence are happening in Guatemala and Honduras. Since August, Rubén Zamora, editor-in-chief of El Periódico, one of the most important Guatemalan newspapers, has been imprisoned by the government of President Alejandro Giammattei. The newspaper ceased printing in November. Even more stable Central American countries, such as Costa Rica, elected a populist president who regularly attacks La Nación, the country’s most important media group.

In Brazil, attacks against journalists have grown during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. He and his family carry them out frequently, especially in social media. Meanwhile, fake news and propaganda overflow the public conversation. The future president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will have to deal with this legacy, but he also has a long history of confrontation with the critical press.

This same physical, digital, and legal violence can be seen almost everywhere in the region. That’s alongside a financial crisis in the news industry and a lack of real business models (that wouldn’t be dependent on international grants or government advertising) to keep independent media newsrooms afloat. The situation seems desperate.

Journalists have never had good salaries in the Americas, but in recent years, their precariousness has grown. The new generations of journalists have salaries at which it is very difficult not only to do their work with dignity, but even to live adequately.

Being a journalist is becoming a heroic profession in the Americas, and neither governments nor society is acting to protect the watchdogs of democracy. Despite all this, great investigations continue to be carried out. And even under threat, in exile or in jail, Latin American journalists have continued bringing to light the corruption and lies of those in power. In 2023, it’s time to support them, so that next year’s predictions can be different for the entire region.

Mael Vallejo is a Mexican journalist and senior editor of Post Opinión at The Washington Post.

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