Latin America’s Many Fronts in the War on Words

by Rick Rockwell

When it comes to free speech in Latin America, a familiar parental refrain can be heard: two wrongs don’t make a right.

Instead, in this case it is closer to five wrongs don’t make a right.

What is under discussion is why international pressure seems to be focused primarily on Venezuela and the dispute over the closure of television network RCTV. Some on the left say, this issue is being magnified far beyond its importance, and, by the way, problems in Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere are much more important to the cause of free expression. (For a deeper discussion of the RCTV closure, please scroll up to the latest post or see: "The Closing of Venezuela's RCTV & Leftist Orthodoxy.")

Here’s the logic: because the issues in Mexico and Colombia are more lethal, complex, and long-term they should be discussed but Venezuela should be ignored. By following that logic, it would mean conservative commentators are correct: leftists only believe in transparency and a multitude of opinions on topics when it is convenient.

During the past few weeks, this author has been included in a series of discussions with representatives of the Venezuelan embassy to the United States. Inevitably members of the Venezuelan diplomatic corps provide various examples of other free press issues that don’t get near the attention that President Hugo Chavez and his plans to shutdown RCTV receive in the global media. (Nevertheless, the move to shut down RCTV has also encouraged further attacks on the media, such as the recent assault on the network Globovision.)

Truly, politics does motivate much of that coverage, but the truth is, unlike the problems in Mexico and Colombia, which revolve around decades of corruption and the problems presented by powerful drug cartels, the situation in Venezuela is rather linear. Simply, the issue in Venezuela is about the state versus corporate media. If Chavez and the media could find a compromise, the issue would dissipate.

However, the problems in Venezuela only highlight a trend among leftist governments in Latin America to confront the media. This is a trend pointed out by the Committee to Protect Journalists earlier this year. And it is also a complex trend because the media in Latin America often represent oligarchies and entrenched conservative power bases, which make them the natural opposition to reformist leftist governments.

Take these examples:

  • Last month, the government of Alan Garcia in Peru moved to close various regional television and radio stations due to what courts called excessive criticism of the government.

  • This week, President Manuel Zelaya, the leader of the Liberal Party in Honduras ordered all the country’s broadcast stations to include 20 hours of specific government content as a way to counteract what Zelaya called media lies about his administration. Honduran law gives the president powers to order the broadcast of important material.

  • Free speech advocates have also criticized the anti-media tactics used by left-leaning presidents in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina.
In many of these countries, the media system is highly concentrated. Leftist reformers want more latitude in leveraging the economic and political clout of these media outlets. However, the governments often use the considerable mechanisms of the state and go too far.

So, yes, Chavez and his struggles against the media are not the only example and should not be the only discussion when it comes to free expression. In Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala, free speech faces the difficult prospect of fighting highly corrupt systems, which support drug cartels. In those cases, conservative governments are all struggling to hold their states together, imploding as they are under the weight of violence and profiteering. Although conditions for free expression have been improving steadily since the early 1990s throughout Latin America, as the wave of democracy crested, current times show some of these advances are threatened, as the enthusiasm for democracy ebbs.

For more background on this story, please see these previous entries:
(The graphic is from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free. For a debate on the conditions for free expression in the Americas, please see the latest episode of "Latin Pulse," which will be broadcast on Link TV beginning Monday, May 28. To see Venezuelan National Guard troops preparing in Caracas to prevent protests connected to the RCTV closure, please see below.)

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