Media Center

Press Release


  May 19, 2006

Experts at an Organization of American States (OAS) forum concluded today that despite major challenges to freedom of expression in the Americas, significant progress is being made. They noted positive developments, such as more countries introducing access-to-information laws, but lamented that more journalists are being killed in connection with their duties and that challenges continue to threaten the consolidation of democracy in the Americas.

The President of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), Diana Daniels, who is also Vice President of the Washington Post Company, attributed some of the progress to “the greater availability of information, better access to information, more in-depth reporting, and the wider dissemination of information.”

Speaking on a panel discussion on “Freedom of Expression in the 21st Century in the Americas,” the seventh event in The Americas Project series, Daniels asserted that “a country’s degree of democracy is directly proportional to the level of press freedom that exists there.”

The Americas Project is a joint initiative with Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. The annual Americas Project, which began in 1997, is part of the institute’s effort to increase awareness of Latin American issues. It provides a leadership forum for emerging economic, political, and cultural pacesetters from the Western Hemisphere to engage in dialogue on topics of importance to the hemisphere.

Daniels noted an encouraging development in countries such as Brazil, where the Congress is debating a bill to limit the punitive damages that news media face on being found guilty of libel. According to Daniels, the greatest danger posed by this “damages awards industry” is that it has sparked a growing wave of self-censorship that is undermining the role of the press as a watchdog in a democratic society. She welcomed legal advances in access-to-information legislation in Mexico, Peru, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Jamaica and Panama. She also noted positive moves underway in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador, among others. But Daniels lamented violence against journalists, calling for greater effort by governments in the matter of justice and impunity. “The majority of the 298 cases of murdered journalists in the Americas since 1987 remain unsolved,” she said.

Another panelist, journalist Pablo Bachelet of the Miami Herald’s Washington Bureau, noted that “political instability, institutional weakness, and soaring and frustrated popular expectations, impact the media directly, often resulting in less freedom of the press.” On the issue of freedom-of-information laws, he detailed instances of problems but noted progress in some countries as he called for the culture of secrecy in Latin America to be overcome.

Detailing instances of major challenges media face as they try to be independent, particularly vis-à-vis governments, Bachelet explained the use of advertising budgets by national and local governments to favor media that cover the governments more favorably. He said it is more difficult for media to be independent where the government is by far the biggest advertiser.

Meanwhile, the Executive Secretary of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Santiago Canton, gave an overview of initiatives through the inter-American system and the main challenges for the protection of the right to freedom of expression. He too welcomed some of positive developments, among them the repealing of contempt laws in nine OAS member countries. This is “an acknowledgement that these laws are incompatible with right to freedom of expression,” Canton stressed. He continued: “Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Jamaica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic have approved key laws providing access to public information, or substantial advances to guarantee this important right.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights played a critical role in many of these cases, Canton said.

Canton noted that the number of journalists killed in the region fell from eleven in 2004 to five in 2005, but expressed concern that thus far in 2006, four have been killed, one disappeared and two have been forced to flee their countries. Many others have been attacked and intimidated.

The Director of the OAS Department of External Relations, Irene Klinger, opened the event, with Maria E. Levens, Director of the OAS Human Development Fund Committee, moderating the panel discussion that also included a question-and-answer session.

Reference: E-123/06