Autocrats' latest weapon: Indirect censorship

Posted: Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Here is why we should be more worried than usual about press freedoms in the Americas: several democratically elected authoritarian presidents are seeing their popularity rates plummet, and are clamping down on independent media ahead of upcoming elections.

It's happening in several countries, but nowhere as clearly as in Venezuela.

There, narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chavez is suffering from growing public discontent over Latin America's highest inflation rates - estimated at more than 30 percent - electricity blackouts, food shortages and massive government corruption.

Seventy percent of Venezuelans think the country is heading in the wrong direction, according to a recent poll by Keller and Associates.

Not surprisingly, Chavez is cracking down on Globovision - the last television network that openly criticizes the government after the closing of the RCTV network's cable signal in January, and RCTV's air broadcasts in 2007 - as we get closer to key Sept. 26 congressional elections.

While the election rules are heavily slanted to favor government candidates, the election could result in a highly visible opposition in Congress that could block some presidential measures and launch investigations into government corruption. Chavez has single-handedly controlled all branches of government since the opposition decided to boycott the 2005 legislative elections.

Earlier this month, Chavez lashed out at his country's courts on national television for failing to take action against Guillermo Zuloaga, the president and part-owner of Globovision, in connection with an unrelated government investigation into the businessman's Toyota dealership. Days later, Venezuelan courts issued an arrest warrant for Zuloaga.

Simultaneously, Chavez called for stepping up legal actions against Nelson Mezerhane, one of the biggest stockholders of Globovision, whose Banco Federal was recently taken over by the government. Referring to Zuloaga and Mezerhane, Chavez suggested June 17 that the state may take over "all the companies that these people have."

Zuloaga's attorneys in Venezuela told me that while the government claims that Zuloaga had been hoarding 24 Toyotas in a parking lot next to his home, all the vehicles had been previously sold, and were awaiting delivery. In addition, while the government is pressing charges against Zuloaga and Mezerhane, it is not investigating hundreds of pro-Chavez officials and business people who have been caught in public corruption cases, including the much-publicized 2007 incident in which a Venezuelan delegation tried to smuggle a suitcase full of cash into Argentina, they say.

Shortly before his most recent actions to silence Globovision and RCTV, Chavez had stripped 32 radio stations of their licenses because of alleged irregularities in their registrations, and threatened to cancel the broadcasting concessions of 200 more.

But Venezuela is far from alone in resorting to indirect censorship to muffle critics in the media. Leaving aside Cuba, where the ruling dictatorship officially bans all critical media, several governments in the region are stepping up intimidation of critical media through administrative actions, economic pressures, violent rhetoric or illegal espionage, freedom of the press groups say.

The presidents of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia routinely demonize journalists they don't like, and often use state resources to reward loyalists and punish critical news organizations, they say.

A study released last year by Argentina's Association for Civil Rights showed that the country's government spends about $115 million a year in media ads, rewarding friendly media and denying advertising to critical publications.

Several other reports talk about Colombia's use of illegal espionage of journalists by the national intelligence agency, known as DAS, which inhibits confidential sources from talking to reporters.

Catalina Botero, the special rapporteur of freedom of expression of the 34-country Organization of American States, told me that there is a "growing trend toward abuse of government powers to silence dissident voices" in the region.

"The days of formal censorship boards in Latin America are largely over, but governments have found new ways of silencing criticism," she added. "Today, we are seeing more indirect forms of censorship, which are harder to detect and denounce."

My opinion: It's time for the OAS and nongovernment watchdog groups to expand their definition of censorship, going beyond the necessary investigations into the murder or legal actions against critical journalists. They should include the new - and more subtle - ways of silencing the press, from going after media owners' other businesses to the discretionary use of government advertising.

As strange as it sounds, the new rule of the game among aspiring presidents-for-life in Latin America is muffling the media indirectly while claiming to continue defending freedom of the press.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; e-mail: aoppenheimermiamiherald.com.



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