Among the “20 Deadliest Countries” listed on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj.org/killed), there are three Latin American contenders leading the group of nations where the most journalists have been killed since 1992. At no. 5, Colombia ranks as the worst in the western hemisphere: 43 journalists are known to have been killed for their work there, together with another 33 whose killings have no confirmed motive. Mexico comes in at no. 9, with 27 killed, motive confirmed; 38 unconfirmed; and four killings of media workers (defined by the CPJ as translators, drivers, guards, fixers, administrative workers, and the like). Twelve Mexican journalists have gone missing since 2005; most of them are feared dead. Brazil ranks no. 11, with 23 killed, motive confirmed, and eight unconfirmed.
Most of the journalists killed in all three countries were covering the drug business or the government corruption connected to it. As a result of this wave of violence, many reporters have abandoned their profession, while others have gone into exile. Scores have been cowed into silence, feeling vulnerable in such a lawless environment.1 Thus a decline in violence against journalists may not necessarily be a sign of progress as far as freedom of speech goes. Colombia, for example, remains on the “Deadliest” list even though lethal violence against Colombian journalists has eased in the last eight years. Although the government of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–10) took credit for the improvement as a vindication of its security policies, human rights and press freedom advocates have maintained that widespread self-censorship is the decisive factor in the decline.2
While deadly violence in Colombia has receded, the number of threats is still on the rise. In the last two years, some of the most serious threats have been linked with illegal espionage perpetrated by the national intelligence service. Since 2004, intelligence agents have subjected journalists, human rights activists, judges, and human rights defenders to illegal phone tapping, e-mail interception, and surveillance. The unauthorized spying was orchestrated by the intelligence agency, known as DAS, which was directly supervised by Uribe and has since been dismantled. Thousands of e-mails and telephone conversations were intercepted in that period. Some of the country’s top journalists were among those spied upon. Reporters are more cautious now and take measures to prevent illegal interceptions.3
In recent years, Mexico has been the most dangerous place on earth for journalists, with 48 reporters (motives confirmed and unconfirmed) having been killed or disappeared since December 2006, when outgoing president Felipe Calderón (2006–12) deployed thousands of troops to combat the drug cartels. As in Colombia, rampant censorship is the result of the fear and intimidation that the Mexican press confronts, with few guarantees of safety and journalists are muzzling themselves as a result. Aggravating the situation is the fact that more than 90% of these killings remain unsolved, perpetuating a climate of impunity that leaves the media wide open to attacks, some of which have been extraordinarily shocking.
Most of the journalists killed recently in Brazil died in the country’s interior. Journalists working in isolated areas, like the Amazon region, the Northeast, or the border with Paraguay, are usually wide-open to attacks from drug traffickers, common criminals, and shady officials. But the provincial media are not the only targets of violence. Investigative journalists who have conducted in-depth reporting in the favelas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where drug gangs maintain territorial control, have suffered serious consequences for their work. The most infamous example was the killing of Tim Lopes, a top investigative reporter for TV Globo, who was tortured and killed in 2002 after reporting on the sexual exploitation of minors by drug traffickers.
Though not included on the “20 Deadliest Countries” list, several countries in Central America are close to Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil in the level of lethal violence facing journalists. Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world, with exceptionally high homicide rates. The 2011 Global Study on Homicide by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows that in the last five years, homicides have increased in five out of eight countries in the region. The main reasons behind this spike, the report said, are drug trafficking, organized-crime activities, and political violence.
Honduras, according to the UN report, has the world’s highest per capita homicide rate, with more than 82 killing per every 100,000 inhabitants. The press has not been immune to this surge in lethal violence. Since President Porfirio Lobo took office in January 2010, at least 14 journalists have been killed, CPJ research shows. Investigations into these killings have produced no progress. CPJ has found that the Lobo administration lacks the political will to pursue journalists’ killers, and as a result, some local journalists believe that the crimes have been executed with the complicity of Honduran police, armed forces, or other authorities.
Besides the increase in cocaine trafficking and extensive common crime, the June 2009 military-backed coup that ousted former president Manuel Zelaya deepened divisions and fractured the press. As the interim government cracked down on journalists and outlets that opposed the coup, press freedom conditions were seriously damaged. According CPJ research, the environment of fear, violence, and pervasive impunity has made Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the region for journalists.
The same UN report shows that El Salvador also has an extremely high homicide rate, with 66 per 100,000 inhabitants. But in an astounding turn, they have been cut dramatically since March, when a truce between the country’s most violent street gangs was brokered by a Catholic bishop and a former leftist congressman. While President Mauricio Funes insisted that his government did not make a deal with the maras to guarantee the agreement, soon after the truce was announced more than 20 gang leaders were moved from maximum-security to other jails and given benefits, such as televisions and increased visiting rights.
It was El Faro, a respected local online newspaper based in San Salvador, that broke the news about the truce, revealing it was the result of a government deal with gang leaders to stop the violence in exchange for better prison conditions. El Faro’s stories described secret negotiations in which gangs would limit killings in exchange for concessions like having imprisoned gangsters transferred to lower-security prisons. The reporters with El Faro denounced being followed and photographed as a result of their work. While officials said El Faro employees were at risk of being attacked by the gangs, they did not provide any information or offer any protection for the staff.
Thus far, steps taken by governments have been failed to curtail the targeting of journalists. At stake is an in-depth debate on issues of national and international interest that have a huge impact in the daily lives of millions of people in the western hemisphere. Investigative journalism, a very risky job, has almost become an extinct profession in the places where it is needed most.
Carlos Lauría is the senior Americas Program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He writes regularly on press freedom issues for media in Latin America and Europe.
1. Carlos Lauría and Mike O’Connor, Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press, CPJ Special Report, September 8, 2010.
2. Chip Mitchell, Untold Stories, CPJ Special Report, October 29, 2005.
3. Carlos Lauría, “In the Americas, Big Brother Is Watching Reporters,” Attacks on the Press in 2009, February 16, 2010.
Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2012 issue: "#Radical Media: Communication Unbound."