Protection of Journalists Fails in Latin America

Mexican photographer Rubén Espinosa places a plaque in honour of Regina Martínez, on Apr. 28, 2015, in the central square of Xalapa, the capital of the southern state of Veracruz, to commemorate the third anniversary of the journalist’s murder. On July 2015, Espinosa was also killed. Credit: Roger López/IPS

Mexican photographer Rubén Espinosa places a plaque in honour of Regina Martínez, on Apr. 28, 2015, in the central square of Xalapa, the capital of the southern state of Veracruz, to commemorate the third anniversary of the journalist’s murder. On July 2015, Espinosa was also killed. Credit: Roger López/IPS

By Daniela Pastrana
MEXICO CITY, Apr 29 2017 (IPS)

Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Brito covered drug trafficking issues in a region of the southern state of Guerrero where criminal groups are extremely powerful.

In September 2015 he survived an attempt on his life, and because he was deemed at “very high risk” he became a beneficiary of the federal mechanism for protection for human right defenders and journalists created in December 2012.

The protection measures he was assigned consisted basically of police patrols. They offered him a place in a shelter in Mexico City, but he refused.

In October 2016, the protection measures were cancelled; five months later, Pineda Brito became the first journalist murdered in 2017 in the most dangerous country for reporters in Latin America.“In addition to Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, the situation in Paraguay and Venezuela, in particular, reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region.” — Ricardo González

Pineda Brito’s Mar. 2 murder was followed by six weeks of terror in which three more journalists were killed and two others survived after being shot, in different parts of this country of 127 million people.

The highest-profile murder was that of Miroslava Breach, on Mar. 26, a veteran journalist who covered political news for the La Jornada newspaper in the northern state of Chihuahua along the U.S. border.

But Pineda Brito’s killing reflected the inefficacy of institutional mechanisms for protecting journalists in the region.

“Last year it became clear that the state’s protection model exported from Colombia to Mexico and recently to Honduras had failed,” said Ricardo González, Security and Protection Officer of the London-based international organisation Article 19, which defends freedom of expression.

“The cases of journalists murdered in Mexico, who were under the protection of different state mechanisms, as well as the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s refusal to take part in the assessment of cases under the Colombian mechanism are things that should be of concern,” he told IPS.

For González, the lack of a functioning justice system and redress makes the model “ineffective, apart from financially unsustainable.”

The numbers in Mexico prove him right: according to Article 19’s latest report, of the 427 assaults on the media and journalists registered in 2016, 99.7 per cent went unpunished.

Meanwhile, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression has only managed to secure a conviction in three cases.

Most of the attacks were against journalists who work for small media outlets outside the country’s capital, and at least half of them were committed by state agents.

The federal protection mechanism currently protects 509 people – 244 journalists and 265 human right defenders).

But even though the dangers are growing rather than decreasing, the government and the legislature cancelled the funds available for protection, and since January the mechanism has been operating with the remnants of a trust fund whose 9.5 million dollars in reserves will run out in September.

According to Article 19, violence against the press is still one of the main challenges faced in Latin America, and something to be reflected on when World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3.

“In addition to Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, the situation in Paraguay and Venezuela, in particular, reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region,” said González.

Map of the World Press Freedom Index, released Apr. 26 by Reporters Without Borders, where Cuba (173rd of 180 countries) and Mexico (147th) are the worst positioned in Latin America, while Uruguay (25th) and Chile (33rd) top the regional ranking.  Credit: RWB

Map of the World Press Freedom Index, released Apr. 26 by Reporters Without Borders, where Cuba (173rd of 180 countries) and Mexico (147th) are the worst positioned in Latin America, while Uruguay (25th) and Chile (33rd) top the regional ranking. Credit: RWB

In the same vein, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday Apr. 26 warns about the political and economic instability seen in several countries of Latin America, where journalists who investigate questions that affect the interests of political leaders or organised crime are attacked, persecuted and murdered.

“RWB regrets the pernicious and continuous deterioration of the situation of freedom of expression in Latin America,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the RWB Latin America desk, presenting the Index.

“In the face of a multifaceted threat, journalists often have to practice self-censorship, and even go into exile, to survive. This is absolutely unacceptable in democratic countries,” he added.

The RWB report underscores the case of Nicaragua, the country that experienced the largest drop in the index because since the controversial re-election of President Daniel Ortega, the independent and opposition press has suffered numerous cases of censorship, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests. The country fell 17 spots, to 92nd among the 180 countries studied.

The report also describes Mexico as another worrisome case: in 15 years it dropped from 75th to 147th on the Index, putting it next to Syria and Afghanistan. Mexico is still torn apart by corruption and the violence of organised crime, says RWB.

In fact, it is the second worst ranked Latin American country, after Cuba, which is 173rd, after dropping two spots.

At a regional level, the countries best-positioned in the ranking are Uruguay (25th, after falling five), Chile (33rd, after dropping two) and Argentina (50th, after going up four).

Increasingly sophisticated means of control

Despite the threats and risks, independent journalism is making progress in the region. In 2016, the organisation Sembramedia created the first directory of native digital media in Latin America which has listed more than 500 independent platforms.

But at the same time, the means of control of the independent press are getting more sophisticated, said González.

Legal, labour and online harassment, as well as indirect censorship through the control of state advertising are tools that governments and political and economic groups use ever more frequently around the region.

In Mexico, the most emblematic case is that of journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was fired together with her investigative journalism team from the MVS radio station after publishing an investigation about corruption implicating President Enrique Peña Nieto.

But there are even more unbelievable cases, such as a judge’s order for psychological tests for political scientist Sergio Aguayo, after he published well-substantiated information about massacres in the Mexican state of Coahuila, connected to former governor Humberto Moreira.

The organisation FUNDAR Centre for Analysis and Research has documented that this country’s central government and 32 state governments spend an average of 800 million dollars a year on official advertising and announcements in the media.

Another Mexican organisation committed to the defence of digital rights, R3D, reported that various regional governments have bought programmes from Hacking Team, an Italian cybersecurity firm that sells intrusion and surveillance capabilities to governments and companies on websites, social networks and email services.

According to R3D, online intimidation and monitoring have increased in Mexico during the Peña Nieto administration.

This pattern repeats itself in other Latin American countries, where attacks are increasing and presenting new challenges.

“In the last year, we have seen how the risks of violence which in the past were limited to questions such as drug trafficking are now faced by those who cover issues related to migration and human trafficking, the environment or community defense of lands against the extractive industries,” said González.

Another flashpoint is the coverage of border issues. “Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has had quite a negative effect in terms of freedom of the press, both domestically and internationally, in the entire region,” he said.

At UN, Rex Tillerson, Top US Diplomat, Delivers Stark Warnings to North Korea

Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, right, who presided over the UN Security Council session on North Korea’s nuclear threats, with Yun Byung-se, his South Korean counterpart, April 28, 2017. Tillerson demanded that all UN member states must abide by UN sanctions on North Korea. Credit: RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, right, who presided over the UN Security Council session on North Korea’s nuclear threats, with Yun Byung-se, his South Korean counterpart, April 28, 2017. Tillerson demanded that all UN member states must abide by UN sanctions on North Korea. Credit: RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

By Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2017 (IPS)

Speaking to the United Nations Security Council at a meeting on North Korea held at the foreign-minister level, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked member countries to join the United States in a strong campaign to enhance pressures on the Kim Jong-un regime, whose rapidly developing nuclear and missile programs have reached dangerous levels.

The high-level diplomatic session took place on April 28, the final day of the American presidency of the Security Council, a monthly rotating position. The atmosphere signaled that the US was back and needed partners after months of disparaging the UN and insulting various UN member countries.

All 15 Council members read statements at the session, in addition to South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se. North Korean diplomats did not participate in the Council session. But as if to underline the menacing if predictable behavior of the regime, it fired a missile, which apparently failed, not long after the Council’s meeting ended.

The tone of Tillerson’s address to the Council was much more measured than the freewheeling style of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, who said on her first day in the job that she would “take names” and later threatened to use her high heels for kicking those who opposed American policies. (The heels reference was used when she was governor of South Carolina, referring to labor organizers.)

She also compared the UN with the South Carolina state legislature for its clubbiness when she was governor, yet she promoted a fellow state governor to become head of the UN’s World Food Program. PassBlue obtained the letter she wrote to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Haley had promised to “fix” things at the UN as well. “I like to fix things,” she told the US Senate Foreign Relations committee at her confirmation hearing in January.

Hints that a new approach by the US toward world politics may be forming, perhaps led by Tillerson, followed a week of extraordinary chaos in an already chaotic White House. President Donald Trump, still lacking a coherent foreign policy of his own, flailed around for a single domestic success he could advertise on his 100th day in office.

He tried and failed again to get a new national health care bill and threw out an ill-considered American tax-reform outline that ran into a buzzsaw of criticism from experts who called it a gift to the rich.

The week of chaos began on April 24 with a White House lunch for all Security Council ambassadors and their spouses, in which the idea of a presidential “we need you” surfaced and praise for the UN Secretary-General Guterres was made by Trump, according to a diplomat at the meeting. Tillerson was not present at the lunch, but Haley sat at the president’s side.

Curiously, Trump tried to make a joke about her tenure in New York, thanking her for her “outstanding leadership” and then asking Council members: “Does everybody like Nikki? Because if you don’t she can easily be replaced. No, we won’t do that. I promise.”

Still, Trump inadvertently raised suspicions about whether Haley will be reined in by Tillerson, who is slowly but surely reorganizing his department and takes a cautious approach to his diplomacy so far. Reports soon emerged that Haley may be required to have her public statements pre-approved by the State Department, but whether she agrees remains to be seen.

Four days later, on April 28, Tillerson’s message in the Security Council session on North Korea was about partnership, stressing not only American fears — the stock rhetoric of the Trump White House — but also the anxieties of Asian nations and the wider world. “The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it,” Tillerson said to a chamber full of UN ambassadors, whom he thanked for their presence. “I urge this Council to act before North Korea does.”

Tillerson’s demand for action — beginning “today,” he said — included familiar complaints from Washington; for example, doing a better job of enforcing UN resolutions aimed at bringing North Korea to a nuclear stand-down. He called for new financial sanctions on anyone, individual or country, who is supporting or abetting North Korea in its nuclear and missile development — thus defying the sanctions regime, the strictest set imposed by the UN on a member country. No higher-level sanctions on, say, digital activities that violate UN penalties, were mentioned.

He also asked all 193 UN member nations to “suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea,” saying that the regime of Kim Jong-un was exploiting its diplomatic openings and privileges to fund its technology programs, particularly for its military. And he emphasized the importance of imposing bans on North Korean imports, especially coal. He called for suspending the guest-worker program that bring laborers into various countries who can become agents of the Kim Jong-un regime.

He singled out China. “We must all do our share, but with China accounting for 90 percent of North Korean trade, China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique, and its role is therefore particularly important,” Tillerson said. “The US and China have held productive exchanges on this issue, and we look forward to further actions that build on what China has already done.”

Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China, in his address to the Council, refused to accept that it was up to his country alone to solve the North Korea problem. “The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” he said. China has preferred to deal with the North Korea issue in multination talks, although these have gained little ground in the past.

The Chinese minister told the media before the Council session that his country’s priorities are denuclearization of North Korea, upholding the nonproliferation regime there, peace talks and not to allow “chaos or war to break out on the peninsula.”

Tillerson repeated the long-held position that “all options” were on the table in dealing with North Korea, as Vice President Mike Pence repeated throughout his trip to Northeast Asia.

“Diplomatic and financial levers of power will be backed by a willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action, if necessary,” Tillerson said. But he did not repeat Trump’s recent offhand remark that he would meet with Kim Jong-un if the situation required it. Nor did he refer to the cyberwarfare powers that the US has at its disposal, which Washington does not confirm or deny have been used to abort or destroy North Korean missiles after their launchings.

Russia, for its part, emphasized the toll that sanctions took on ordinary North Koreans and said that although Russia was united in condemning in North Korea’s missile launchings, the government won’t give up its nuclear program as long as it feels threatened by US naval exercises in the region.

Speaking to the Council first, Guterres of the UN described North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile firings in recent years as “clear violations of Security Council resolutions.”

He pointed out that these actions have violated numerous international agreements, including maritime law and aviation regulations.

Moreover, Guterres said, “The International Atomic Energy Agency remains unable to access the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to verify the status of its nuclear program,” though it does have sophisticated satellite monitoring in place.

“The DPRK is the only country to have conducted nuclear tests in this century,” Guterres noted. “We must assume that, with each test or launch. The DPRK continues to make technological advances in its pursuit of a military nuclear capability. . . . The onus is on the DPRK to comply with its international obligations. At the same time, the international community must also step up its efforts to manage and reduce tensions.”

In his concluding remarks, speaking as the US representative and not the Council presiding officer, Tillerson re-emphasized the crucial importance of a truly international effort beyond the calls for more negotiations.

“We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea,” he said. “We will not reward their violations of past resolutions. We will not reward their bad behavior with talks. We will only engage in talks with North Korea when they exhibit a good-faith commitment to abiding by the Security Council resolutions and their past promises to end their nuclear programs.

“And that is why we must have full and complete compliance by every country to the resolutions that have been enacted by this body in the past — no relaxation in the vigorous implementation of sanctions. . . . Any failure to take action diminishes your vote for these resolutions of the past, and diminishes your vote for future resolutions, and it devalues your seat at this Council. We must have full, complete compliance by all members of the Council.”

Leaving the Council after the hourslong session and skirting the media throng outside the chamber, Tillerson walked with Haley to the US mission to the UN across the street, where Council members were treated to lunch.

(Brought to IPS readers courtesy of PassBlue, online independent coverage of the UN, a project of the Ralph Bunche Institute, City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center)