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Press Freedom Suffers in Parts of Latin America

Press freedom is among the hallmarks of a democratic society, according to the executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He told a Washington audience Wednesday that such freedom struggles to exist in parts of Latin America.

Argentinian-born lawyer Santiago Canton was named to his current post in June, 2001. Previously, he served as the Inter-American Commission's first Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Speaking to the World Press Freedom Committee, a Washington-based organization that includes associations throughout the world, he said reporting remains dangerous in the region.

"Freedom of the press continues to face serious challenges in the Americas, including assassinations of journalists and other acts of extreme violence," he said. "In the first two and a half years of this new century, 20 journalists were murdered in the Americas because of their work."

One of those killed was Brazilian journalist Domingos Savio Brandao, the owner and columnist of a daily newspaper in the central Brazilian city of Cuiaba. In September 2002, he was shot to death in the newspaper's office. Mr. Canton said the killing was probably caused by the journalist's work.

"It is believed that his murder was related to the newspaper's numerous investigations into the existence of gangs involved in undercover gambling and drug trafficking," he said.

Another recent victim was Colombian journalist Flavio Bedoya, who was killed in April of last year. He was a correspondent for the weekly publication Voz, and had received death threats following an article on the alleged collaboration between the Colombian government's security forces and paramilitary groups. He says such murders can have a chilling effect on a news organization's attempt to publish or broadcast the truth.

According to Mr. Canton, freedom of the press is essential to maintaining a democratic society. "Freedom of expression and access to information become particularly important when democracies are still weak, as they are in many parts of the Americas today," he said.

But Mr. Canton noted there have been some improvements in the region. Three Latin American countries, Argentina, Paraguay and Costa Rica have eliminated so-called desacato laws, or laws establised during the colonial era that punish those who insult the "honor or dignity" of public officials. Such laws are considered by many international human rights organizations as anti- media freedoms. Mr. Canton also said his commission's use of precautionary measures to protect those journalists threatened in certain circumstances have saved many lives.