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RSF 2021 Index: Americas

Nearly all indicators flashing red in Latin America 

The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index shows decline across the board in Latin America. With a few exceptions, the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated an already complex and hostile environment for journalists.

The pandemic has fuelled censorship in Latin America and reporters have had major problems finding out how the region’s governments have handled the public health crisis. These constraints have been reflected in a spectacular worsening in the indicator that measures how hard it is for journalists to access state-held information. Latin America has also registered the biggest deterioration in its overall press freedom violations score (+2,5%).

In Brazil (down 4 at 111th), access to official pandemic figures was complicated by a lack of transparency on the part of the government led by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has tried by every means possible to minimise the scale of the crisis, creating a great deal of tension between authorities and national media (see box below). In El Salvador (down 8 at 82nd), one of the 2021 Index’s biggest falls, coverage of the pandemic was seriously hampered by police seizures of journalistic material, denial of access to public spaces, a lack of transparent access to state-held information, presidential aides refusing to answer pandemic-related questions at press conferences, and a ban on interviews with officials about the pandemic.

Denying reality, desire to quarantine media

Similarly obstructive practices were seen in Guatemala (116th), where President Alejandro Giammattei said he would like to “put the media in quarantine,” and in Ecuador (up 2 at 96th). Coverage of the pandemic was made particularly difficult by the attitude of denial adopted by some authoritarian leaders, including Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (down 4 at 121st), Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras (down 3 at 151st) and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela (down 1 at 148th). They used the shockwave caused by the crisis to reinforce their censorship arsenal and make it even harder for independent media to operate. Journalists were publicly accused of exaggerating the gravity of the health crisis and spreading panic. Those who dared question the authorities’ handling of the pandemic were arrested, accused of “disinformation terrorism” and in some cases jailed. They included Venezuelan freelancer Darvinson Rojas when he simply questioned the credibility of the government’s figures in a tweet.

Brazil (down 4 at 111th): Toxic environment for the media

 After falling two places last year, Brazil has fallen another four places and is now marked red on the World Press Freedom map because its situation is classified as “bad”. The fall is due above all to the toxicity of the environment for Brazilian journalists since Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president in October 2018 and, in particular, the insults, vilification and orchestrated public humiliations of journalists that have become the trademark of the president, his family and closest allies. These attacks have redoubled in intensity since the start of the pandemic. To evade responsibility for his disastrous handling of the crisis, with a death toll now standing at more than 318,000*, Bolsonaro has blamed the media for the chaotic situation. He has also helped to spread false information (recommending, for example, the antiparasitic drug ivermectin as a treatment for Covid-19 although its efficacy has never been proved and the WHO discourages its use). He has criticised social isolation measures. And he has prompted gatherings at which social isolation norms were flouted, resulting in both Facebook and Twitter censoring him. In reaction to the president’s compulsive lying and the lack of transparency regarding the government’s handling of the pandemic, Brazil’s leading media outlets forged an unprecedented alliance in June 2020, pooling the information they obtaineed from the country’s 26 states and Brasilia federal district and publishing their own public health bulletins. 

 *On 31 March 2021

Anti-media rhetoric from politicians

The reporting environment is becoming increasingly toxic in most of Latin America. Mistrust of the press is encouraged by the increasingly virulent anti-media rhetoric used by politicians. Journalists are branded as “enemies of the people” in Brazil and El Salvador and even more in Nicaragua and Venezuela, where the independent media are close to death. Cuba (171st) continues to fester near the bottom of the Index, with the constitution still banning privately-owned media, resulting in independent media outlets having no legal recognition and only managing to exist online. Mexico (143rd) is still one of the world’s deadliest countries for the media and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to vilify journalists at his morning press conferences if they publish stories that are not to his liking.

Varied threats

The increasing frequency of vilification is undermining journalism and spurring an ever-greater variety of violent attacks on the media. RSF has seen a surge in abusive lawsuits, usually by politicians and officials, in countries such as Peru (down 1 at 91st) and Argentina (down 5 at 69th) as well as Brazil and Nicaragua. Online campaigns designed to smear, harass and intimidate journalists, whether conducted openly by well-known figures or orchestrated from behind the scenes, are increasingly common, especially in Colombia (down 4 at 134th) and Brazil. And the targets of these coordinated attacks are often women journalists.

Physical attacks against journalists and “comunicadores” – the Latin American term for bloggers, freelancers and other journalists not working for the mainstream media – have contributed to a further 15% deterioration in the region’s “abuses” indicator. Covering demonstrations has become extremely dangerous in Haiti (down 4 at 87th) and Chile (down 3 at 54th). A total of 13 journalists were killed in connection with their work in Mexico, Honduras and Colombia in 2020. Most of them had been investigating corruption or organised crime. Impunity for murders of journalists continues to feed the vicious cycle of violence.

With legislation that affords them little protection and an economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, independent media are facing huge challenges and need to restore public trust in quality journalism. Despite the difficulties of this environment, journalistic reporting succeeded in countering the false information that some Latin American leaders peddled about the pandemic’s origins and how to address it. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro used social media and official campaigns to promote remedies for Covid-19 (Carvativir and Chloroquine) whose efficacy has never been demonstrated in medical research. In-depth investigative reporting by Agência Pública in Brazil and by El Estímulo and Efecto Cocuyo in Venezuela, where they are among the few remaining independent publications, pointed out the dangers that these campaigns pose to the public and, implicitly, the importance of reliable journalism in combatting the pandemic.

A mixed prognosis for press freedom in North America

The 2021 Index points to worrying vital signs for press freedom in North America despite slight improvements — notably in Canada, which climbed two spots from 16 in 2020 to 14 this year, and in the United States, which moved up one place from 45th in 2020 to 44th this year.

Each country in the region has faced its own challenges, but the Covid-19 crisis demonstrated that no nation is immune to the viral threat of disinformation. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the US, where falsehoods about the virus were picked up by some media and debunked by others as infection rates soared into the tens of millions and the country’s 2020 coronavirus death toll surpassed 350,000 —  the highest in the world.

No inherent immunity to disinformation

As highlighted by RSF’s Tracker 19 online tool, the daily televised coronavirus briefings that were held at the White House — ostensibly to update journalists and the public alike on issues ranging from the pace of testing to hospitalisations — often devolved into a political circus, with President Donald Trump hurling insults at reporters and contradicting the recommendations of his own administration’s medical experts.

Even in Canada, which deserves praise for its press freedom leadership both at home and abroad, some media outlets were called out for promoting stereotypes and tropes about Covid-19 “vaccine hesitancy” among aboriginal groups. This type of cliched and sensational reporting only serves to fuel historically negative and false narratives about indigenous peoples, in Canada but also in the US. As such, the coronavirus crisis exposed an ongoing issue in North America in terms of how the media influences perceptions and creates biases towards native populations.

Elsewhere, the authorities in Jamaica were accused of using lockdown restrictions to limit journalists’ ability to do their work. There was also lingering unease about comments made by Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness in late 2019, who stated that reporters did not have to stick to the facts. Meanwhile, members of the Organization of East Caribbean States and Guyana saw political influence as jeopardising editorial integrity. Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago made the most progress among North American nations, going from 36th position in 2020 to 31st in 2021. This is mainly attributed to an important decision by the Supreme Court in favour of the protection of journalists’ sources, which could have far-reaching implications across the Caribbean.

A violent year for journalists in the US

North America’s most alarming vital sign was arguably the unprecedented number of arrests, aggressions and assaults against members of the media during the racial justice protests that followed the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in mid-2020. The violence was so staggering, it prompted the US Press Freedom Tracker — an RSF partner organisation — to declare that press freedom in the US was “in crisis”. The aggressions were carried out by law enforcement officials, members of self-declared militia groups and counter-protesters alike, and they included a wide range of tactics — from firing rubber bullets and spraying journalists in the face with chemical irritants to verbal threats and harassment or the destruction and confiscation of media equipment.

The violence that characterised so much of 2020 culminated in the deadly insurrection at the Capitol Building on 6 January 2021, resulted in the “deplatforming” of Trump from Twitter and other social media sites. Having ignored the former president’s vitriol and gross misrepresentation of the facts for nearly four years, this development raised serious concerns about the outsized role of big tech corporations to act as the unelected arbiters of the truth. This led RSF to call for the imposition of democratic obligations on the leading digital players, including a framework of checks and balances predicated on transparency and the ability to appeal decisions, such as the suspension of public figures from social media platforms, rather than the status quo, which is subject to market forces and individual interests.              

Treating symptoms won’t remedy underlying conditions

Under the Biden Administration, there have been welcome changes to how journalists are treated in the US. For example, they are no longer publicly vilified by the White House or relentlessly accused of peddling “fake news”. As with any patient, however, while the most obvious symptoms of an ailing democracy may have cleared up, many chronic underlying conditions affecting press freedom remain. For example, the majority of Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and, therefore, invalid.

In fact, in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, for the first time ever, fewer than half of all Americans polled said they trusted traditional media, according to the 21st annual Edelman Trust Barometer, with 56% agreeing with the statement that “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations”.

The perceived — and sometimes very real — politicisation and polarisation of the news along ideological lines is one reason for this growing distrust. If a prerequisite for a functioning democracy is an informed electorate, these trends do not bode well for the long-term health and longevity of trustworthy journalism in America.