Judge and Press

Archive image of a protest by journalists in Caracas. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 3 September 2017 — The man approaches a dilapidated Havana kiosk and buys the latest copy of the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the only party allowed. The situation, extreme like almost everything that happens in Cuba, is only a small part of the tensions that journalism is experiencing in Latin America, the most lethal region on the planet for the press.

The continent, where several of the patricians who promoted independence also exercised the profession of journalism, has become a hostile place for reporters, a minefield for the media. Now, every written word can send its author to court or even to death.

In many of our countries, families would prefer their children to become civil servants or gang members, rather that become cannon fodder for a newspaper. “You’re going to end up underground,” the mother of a Salvadoran reporter has repeated for years when she finds him searching for data or gathering the pieces of an investigation.

In the absence of solid institutions, the press has unduly been awarded the role of prosecutor, ombudsman and comptroller. With all the risks that this entails.

That role transcends the boundaries of the profession and has created excessive expectations among readers. Before it was the redeemers or the caudillos who came to save a nation, now many expect these hybrid beings – a mixture of kamikaze and journalist – to be willing to sacrifice themselves for them.

The darkest scenarios these information specialists find on their path are where impunity or populism reigns. They are the targets of insults or bullets in countries where democracies fail and insecurity reigns. There is no clearer sign that a system has been shipwrecked by authoritarianism or has become a failed state than the way it treats the press.

Where institutions are collapsing, the dangers faced by reporters are greater. A system that cannot protect its citizens, will start by failing to support those who report or those who put in writing the generalized defenselessness.

Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, Raúl Castro’s Cuba, or the Nicaragua of the late Daniel Ortega are some of the geographical points where reporting reality means exposing yourself to reprisals from power. But the list of territories adverse to investigative journalism includes many more nations in the region. In Mexico criminal groups see journalism as a more deadly enemy than military operations.

Poorly paid, even more poorly valued and with working days that know no limits, a good share of Latin American journalists feel that the dreams that led them to take on a profession were more of a mirage than a reality. They have reached this conclusion not only because of the lack of professional and material support, but especially because of coercion.

The defensive response to repression and punishment has been – in many cases – to avoid the street, to choose to do desktop journalism or to rely on the great evils that the recently deceased teacher Miguel Ángel Bastenier described as “declarationitis, officialdom, hyperpoliticization, and international omission.”

The uncritical reproduction of official declarations in the insipid environment of a press conference is complemented by genuflections to the ruling party, because it is from “up there” that the press credentials are distributed for the next event, privileges are administered and jobs in the public media are filled.

The excess of politics is also expressed with those series of stories about the internal workings of government palaces instead of addressing human stories. A press that survives off the party entrails and the fights between its figures has taken possession of the media scene.

“The prideful villager” that José Martí spoke about discovers the warm water in the midst of the ocean of needs that defines Latin America. Turning one’s back on the other has become a form of protection and reproducing in the newspaper headlines what happens on a diplomatic scale among the nations of this continent: so close and so separate.

However, the strongest effect brought about by repression is withdrawal, locking oneself in the glass bubble of a newsroom and writing from a distance. Screen and keyboard reporters swarm everywhere. Flesh-and-blood stories are missing while analyses abound.

The editors know that each headline can become a declaration of war in these places and, in most media, the red lines are added not by the publisher but are marked by threats or expediencies.

The journalist and Spanish professor Bernardo Díaz Nosty describes in his book Dead Journalism the string of obstacles faced by the reporters of our continent. Dictatorships on the one hand, impunity on the other, and narco-power, which manages large regions – as if they were countries in question –make up most of those risks.

At the top of this scale of terror are disappearance and death, although “before the assassination, there usually comes the harassment of the journalist and his relatives, physical assault, stigmatization, extortion,” says Díaz Nosty.

“All this leads to the breakdown of professional independence, the renunciation of the practice of journalism, and exile, if not to capitulation and surrender to the conditions established by the enemy,” he points out in his book.

Writing about organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering or political corruption can be a death sentence in these places. The lack of a state response to actions against information professionals increases the feeling of lack of protection.

Worse yet, many governments in the region have chosen to kill journalism. To achieve that murder – without leaving too much evidence – they develop an extensive network of threats, legal punishments and controls. Not to mention, of course, the perks.

Buying the loyalty of a journalistic pen is one of the aspirations of any power or political group. To narrate through the arts of a loyal informant and to be able to count on the submissive undertones of the press populate the fantasies of partisan propaganda departments.

Together with the court jester, the sycophant of the moment and the spokesmen who repeat slogans, populists reassure themselves that they have their own press. A tame byproduct, headlines molded to avoid any discomfort, and reporters who settle for attending bland press conferences where the most important remains hidden and the inconsequential fills the teletypes.

The vast majority of Latin American governments dream of training the media, managing them as ventriloquists, and making them jump through the hoops of their desires. For them, a journalist is just an amplifier, through which they manage the audience and impose their ideas.


Editorial Note: This article has been published previously by the Spanish newspaper El País in its edition of Saturday 3 of September.