Free press key in democratic society

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    By JONATHAN BAGLEY

    In May, 1996 a monument was erected in Arlington, Va. to honor 934 journalists who have died covering the news.

    Since that time, a few more names could be inscribed on the monument, as journalists in Latin America face dangerous challenges in reporting on their governments.

    “The governments in Latin America are still in the habit of thinking along authoritarian lines,” said Robert O’Neil, director of Latin American studies at Bucknell University.

    After surviving decades of military dictatorship, fledgling democracies are struggling to cope with journalists reporting on acts embarrassing to the government, O’Neil said.

    The actions governments take against journalists can range from suspending a visa to murder.

    O’Neil said Gustavo Gorriti, a Peruvian journalist, was investigating corruption in the Panamanian government. After his visa expired, the government refused to approve its renewal because of the embarrassment Gorriti had caused them.

    Concerned for the democratic process in Panama, Hillary Clinton made an official protest to the government on Gorriti’s behalf, O’Neil said. The government agreed to allow the Gorriti to stay, but it took a lot for him to continue his work there.

    President Clinton has said he is grateful for the media’s criticism of his administration because it has made it stronger. Clinton has urged authoritarian governments to embrace a free press.

    “We (Americans) have a long tradition for toleration that is rooted in our own revolution,” O’Neil said. “It is easy for us to take it for granted. Other parts of the world are just learning how it works.”

    Clinton has also indicated the U.S. will not cut any trade deals with countries that do not have a free press. Clinton fears if there is no free press than there will be no way to check a corrupt government.

    O’Neil thinks the sometimes the reporters bring the discord on themselves.

    Latin American societies have strong partisan politics, O’Neil said, and those biases are not shielded when a reporter writes a story. Journalists will report on a political party they do not support and attempt to paint it in a bad light.

    “They are deliberately hostile to some leaders,” O’Neil said.

    If that party happens to be in power, the journalists should be prepared for repercussions, he said.

    A few of the governments in Latin America are corrupt, O’Neil said. It has been widely reported that Colombia’s government has many connections to drug lords.

    “That is a tempting target for journalists,” O’Neil said.

    The intensity of action taken against the reporters is determined by how corrupt the government is.

    Three reporters covering connections between Mexico’s government and drug traffickers have been killed this year. Five others have been beaten while covering law enforcement.

    People in Argentina were protesting the murder of Jose Luis Cabezas nine months after he was beaten, shot and burned in the street in Buenos Ares.

    “That was the most egregious offense,” O’Neil said. “If the government was involved in that it was a terribly wrong thing to have done.”

    But most governments use indirect methods to intimidate journalists, O’Neil said. They will do try things similar to the Panamanian government’s refusal to renew a visa.

    “The government was within their law when it did that,” he said.

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