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Threats to Press Freedom Remain in Latin America, say Analysts

What is it like to be a journalist in Latin America? You should, among other things, be prepared for harassment by judges and physical attacks. That was the consensus of a panel on freedom of the press in Latin America and the Caribbean that was held Thursday in Washington.

If they do their jobs properly, journalists in Latin America frequently find themselves the target of criminals and corrupt officials. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports that eight journalists were killed in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past 11 months. Journalists were murdered for doing their jobs in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. But there was a glimmer of good news.

The deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, says this was the first time in a decade that no journalists were killed in Colombia, where a conflict between the government and Marxist rebels has gone on for 40 years. But according to Mr. Simon, Colombian journalists have paid a price for their safety. He says they have reduced their vulnerability by censoring themselves.

"They are simply afraid. They are not reporting on rural violence," he said. "They are not reporting on human rights issues simply because the risk is too high. So the fact that no journalists were killed in Columbia this year, for the first time in at least a decade, is very good news, but the reasons for it are troubling."

Mr. Simon and other members of the panel criticized laws in Venezuela and Brazil that they say will severely restrict journalists. In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva is urging the legislature to enact a new press law that he says will guide, discipline and police the field of journalism. Critics counter the law will severely restrict journalistic freedom.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is expected to sign the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. Domestic critics and international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders say the law threatens freedom of the press.

But Ilenia Medina, Venezuela's alternate representative to the Organization of American States, defends the law.

She says the new law is needed to ensure access to the airwaves and protect citizens' rights to information. She notes that Venezuela's law does not criminalize media misconduct, but merely applies administrative sanctions. She is also critical of countries, such as the United States, that allow the criminal prosecution of reporters who refuse to reveal their sources.

Currently, U.S. federal court judges have threatened two reporters with as much as 18 months each in jail for refusing a court order to testify about their contact with confidential sources who revealed the name of an undercover operative at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Simon, with the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the U.S. law has been cited by repressive governments in Latin America and elsewhere to defend their treatment of journalists.

"It makes it easier for governments around the world, repressive governments, to justify their own repressive policies, which in many cases result in the incarceration of journalist," he said.

But despite the problems facing the press the Organization of American States' Special Rapporteur Eduardo Bertoni says there is cause for optimism in some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"One of the issues that is really inspiring is that there are many countries that are passing access to information laws," he said. "That began in 2002 with Mexico, then Peru, then Panama, and during this year Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. And there are a lot of countries that are debating access to public information laws, and I think this is the good news that comes from the continent."

Earlier this week Argentina became the latest country in the region to take up the issue of access to information, when its Senate began to study a bill that was passed by the lower house in May 2003.

The panel was sponsored by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, an organization devoted to Western Hemisphere affairs.