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Editors: Latin American Press Freedoms Threatened
email this pageprint this pageemail usEduardo Castillo - Associated Press
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November 08, 2010

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during the 66th General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association in Merida, Mexico, Sunday Nov. 7, 2010. (AP/Israel Leal)
Merida, Mexico - Latin American media leaders warned Sunday that press freedoms in the region are under threat from narco-violence in Mexico and political repression in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Journalists are attacked with impunity in Mexico, the most dangerous country in Latin America for reporters amid relentless drug-gang violence, columnist Roberto Rock of the Mexican newspaper El Universal said in presenting a report on his country at the 66th assembly of the Inter American Press Association.

The association is expected to approve individual country reports in a full document Tuesday.

At least 11 journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, Rock said. In the past decade more than 65 journalists have been slain, Rock said, citing figures from Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights.

Few of those crimes have been solved, despite the creation of a special prosecutor for crimes against the media and other government measures to address the problem.

"The government has been unable to stop the impunity," Rock said.

Many small newspapers in the most violent regions of Mexico, especially the northern areas bordering the United States, acknowledge that they no longer cover drug-gang violence because their reporters have been threatened or killed.

At a recent debate, Mexican journalists also conceded corruption persists in some newsrooms. Salaries are low, leaving reporters vulnerable to bribes, while government advertising remains a major source of revenue for many publications, raising questions about possible official influence on news coverage.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has promised to push for legal reforms to protect journalists and create a security plan.

Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, whose country has seen narco-violence start to diminish as it rises in Mexico, urged Mexican journalists not to magnify drug-gang crimes. And he said Mexican media should blame traffickers - not the government - for the bloodshed.

"To the Mexican press: Be careful not to fall into the trap, which is what the drug trafficking capos want," said Santos, a former journalist who is attending the IAPA meeting. "The enemy is not the government, the enemy is organized crime."

Responding to a question from one reporter, Santos said it also would be wrong for the government to view the media as the enemy. Authorities "tend to blame the messenger and that is also a crass mistake," he said.

The president of the Venezuelan Press Bloc, David Natera, said press freedoms in his country are dwindling under the government of President Hugo Chavez, who calls himself a socialist revolutionary.

Natera accused Chavez of seeking to control Venezuelans by intimidating opponents, expropriating property and silencing the media.

"To achieve this perverse process, Chavez needs to silence the media and journalists," he said.

In July, Chavez announced his government would obtain a minority ownership in Globovision, the last remaining opposition television station with which he has long battled. Another opposition-aligned channel, RCTV, already has been forced off the open airwaves, cable and satellite TV.

In August, a court ordered one of Venezuela's leading newspaper, El Nacional, to stop publishing photographs depicting blood, guns and other violence for a month. El Nacional responded by replacing front-page photos with the word "censored."

Pro-government groups who requested the ruling cited the need to protect children and adolescents from violent images. Chavez has denied any intention to stifle the media and often points to the harsh criticism he receives in newspapers and Globovision.

Media leaders had similar complaints about the Chavez-aligned leftist governments of Ecuador and Bolivia.

Pedro Rivera Jordan, of the Bolivian daily El Deber, warned that a new law against racism could be used to close media outlets "that are not aligned with the government."

The law sets penalties for disseminating content deemed racist or discriminatory, up to and including suspending media licenses.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said the law is intended to fight racism against the poor Indian majority.

A report on Ecuador criticized the government of President Rafael Correa for ordering private TV stations to air the government channel during a September uprising by the national police protesting cuts in benefits.

"Citizens only knew the government's version of events for many hours," the report said.

Correa, who was injured by tear gas and trapped for 10 hours in a hospital by rebel police, vehemently disputes that he aims to silence his critics.

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