Freedom of the press is a cardinal American right—a pillar of our democracy, a guarantor of our freedom and our free institutions. Cherished by all Americans, it is perhaps especially sacred to American liberals and the left. Without it, the injustices exposed by the civil rights movement, the government's duplicity about the Vietnam War, the abuses of the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal—to name but a few landmarks—might never have come to light.
But freedom of the press isn't just important to our own mature democracy. It's no less vital to the democracies of our neighbors, particularly in Latin America. And it's under attack there.
Here are some examples.
- In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez's government refused in 2008 to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV, a decades-old, privately owned TV station in Caracas that was regularly critical of his regime. Two years later, it was the turn of Globovision, another privately-owned TV broadcaster regularly critical of Chavez's government. Its owner was briefly arrested; Chavez-incited mobs attacked its headquarters with tear gas and weapons; and, using a bank nationalization, Chavez's government tried to muscle its way onto the station's board of directors.
- Ecuador’s President Correa brought charges of defamation against the leading opposition newspaper, El Universo, last year over a columnist’s critical article. The courts he controls handed down a $40 million damages award against the newspaper’s owners and three-year prison sentences for three of the paper’s directors and its opinion editor. In a separate case, two journalist authors of a book, Big Brother, critical of Correa were ordered by courts to pay $1 million each in damages plus exorbitant legal fees. The El Universo verdicts were confirmed in February by Ecuador’s Supreme Court, but the Inter-American Human Rights Commission subsequently ordered the sentences set aside and Correa later pardoned the journalists in both cases, saying he was willing to “forgive, but not forget.”
- Argentine President Christina Kirschner has had a running feud with the Clarín, the newspaper flagship of the country’s biggest media conglomerate, and La Nación, another opposition newspaper, since 2008. The media outlets took the side of Argentina’s farm sector when the government moved to impose huge export taxes on the sector’s production to help finance it’s out-of-control spending. Over time, Kirschner’s government has tried repeatedly to rein in and damage the business interests of these press critics: withdrawing the lucrative soccer broadcast concession from Clarín’s broadcast outlet; requiring subscribers to Clarín‘s Internet service company to switch to other providers; and, lately, introducing legislation to declare newsprint a ‘public utility’ and trying to engineer a government take-over of the country’s sole newsprint supplier – co-owned by Clarín and La Nación.
There's nothing new about Latin American governments trying to muzzle the press. For decades, Mexico's government used its monopoly over the supply of newsprint, combined with bribes and government advertising contracts, to keep the media friendly. What is new is the idea of employing these tactics while claiming to be authentic, competitive democracies!
In the face of this, President Obama's silence is remarkable. Sure, his administration's spokespeople—at agencies like the State Department—have issued predictable and obligatory expressions of concern and condemnations at each latest outrage. But when it comes to press freedom—in Latin America or elsewhere in the world—the administration has kept is biggest gun in the barn: President Obama himself. As far as can be seen, he's made no major public pronouncements, much less mounted a sustained campaign, against this problem—including at last month's (failed) Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
There are doubtless many reasons for this. For starters, there are no votes in it—especially in an election season. Obama, his team, and his core supporters are surely reluctant to be seen to interfere in other countries' 'internal affairs'—partly from their unassuaged guilt over America's previous, in their view unfortunate, interventions and involvements. And there's doubtless a certain susceptibility to the 'social justice' narrative of these populist leaders and regimes—tempting some on the American left, Obama's core supporters, to give them a pass.
But it's a pity that President Obama hasn't chosen to use his own still considerable moral authority to publicly condemn these abuses of press freedom in our hemisphere. It is a pity that his team hasn't persuaded him to use his own historic stature to shame and embarrass the demagogues in our neighborhood into respecting this basic pillar of democratic societies. Were he to do so—even at this late date—President Obama would not only put his unique stature to the service of a noble cause and make a major contribution to freedom for the citizens of our hemispheric neighborhood. He could, by doing so, single-handedly redeem the themeless and largely content-less Latin America policy that will otherwise be his legacy.
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