By Dialogo November 16, 2010 MERIDA, Mexico ─ The alarming rise in the death toll of journalists in Latin America has the international community demanding that governments take strong action to stop the bloodshed. “Journalists have become highly symbolic targets,” said Robert Rivard, chairman of the IAPA Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information. “By threatening, intimidating and killing journalists, they (drug traffickers) are fundamentally bringing democracy to a halt.” Rivard’s comments came at the end of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) 66th assembly in Merida in the Mexican state of Yucatan, which concluded Nov. 8. Since the association last met in Aruba in March, IAPA reported 14 more journalists in Latin American have been killed doing their jobs. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 20 have died violently since January, including 10 in Mexico, eight in Honduras, one in Colombia and one in Brazil. Seven are confirmed as work-related; the others are still being investigated by CPJ. The majority of these deaths are directly attributable to drug traffickers, government officials and journalists agree. “Organized crime is the common enemy of those of us who value freedom,” said Mexico President Felipe Calderón during an address to IAPA on Nov. 8 “It is time that the government … journalists and owners of the media companies work together within a frame of coresponsibility against the criminals and their deadly violence. Each journalist who falls, each article that is (unreported) as a result, each word that is silenced, is one more reason to fight the criminals.” IAPA praised the Calderón administration for naming a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and for supporting efforts to make such crimes federal offenses. “There’s this climate of impunity in almost all the states of Mexico,” Rivard said. “If we don’t federalize these crimes against journalists, they’re never going to get addressed.” More work needs to be done, he added. “Now they (Calderón administration) have to create a budget and provide the backing to resolve these cases,” Rivard said. “The reason organized crime is so emboldened about these crimes is that nothing happens, nothing is done.” IAPA’s priority is to end the violent deaths of Latin American journalists doing their jobs to keep the public informed, the association’s leadership confirmed. Addressing Calderón from the podium Monday, Gerardo García Gamboa, chairman of the IAPA Host Committee, reiterated the association’s commitment to independent journalism and democracy, which he said were inextricably intertwined. “Just as your administration is determined in its battle against drug trafficking, the Inter American Press Association neither bows nor steps aside when it comes to defending freedom of the press,” García Gamboa said. Earlier this week, Reporters Without Borders condemned the sentencing of Hector Camero of Radio Tierra y Libertad, a small radio station in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. He was given two years and fined 15,000 pesos (US$1,222) on a charge of using a radio frequency without a license stemming from a 2008 incident, although Reporters Without Borders said the station had been legally licensed in 2009 after a seven-year wait. Last year, Reporters Without Borders cited Mexico as the “western hemisphere country where press freedom is most endangered.” More than 65 journalists have died in Mexico since 2000, the organization stated. At its midyear meeting in Aruba in March, the IAPA concluded that attacks against freedom of the press and freedom of expression throughout Latin America had increased, cutting off the public’s access to independent information. And the problem isn’t just the drug traffickers. overnment intolerance and repression also are to blame, supporters of freedom of speech say. And self-censorship as a result of fear generated by the traffickers and the government adds to the problem. “Reports of the majority of the countries of the hemisphere show there has been a continual worsening of disagreements, warnings and verbal intimidation leveled against people of the press, editors and reporters attempting to practice their profession,” read the IAPA’s statement after the Aruba meeting. While there have been some bright spots in the ensuing months – the Colombia attorney general’s office has agreed to reopen 27 cases of unsolved crimes against journalists and the Peruvian Supreme Court has created a special court for such crimes – the situation overall continues to deteroriate, IAPA members heard over and over again at their conference in Merida. “A few advances … do not hide continued abuses,” reads the official statement of conclusions issued this week. “Along the length and breadth of the Americas, there are renewed efforts to impose laws designed to ‘regulate’ the operation of the media. Although they are expressed in high-minded terms, they are obvious intents to control and limit the free flow of information.” In Bolivia, for example, new laws touted as “anti-racism” inherently restrict the media and freedom of expression, while the government in Argentina is seeking to gain control of newsprint and restricting the licensing of internet news sites, according to country-by-country reports presented at the Merida meeting. In Ecuador, the government has seized several TV stations. Meanwhile in Venezuela, the government has been systematically waging legal warfare against reporters and media outlets that criticize policies, according to a report filed to IAPA. In August, the association decried a new legal order that prohibited the publication of any photos or reports on violence for at least 30 days. Noticeably absent from IAPA’s proceedings in Merida was Guillermo Zuloaga of Venezuela, president of television news station Globovision and winner of the IAPA’s prestigious Grand Prize for Freedom of the Press 2010. He is in exile as a result of a warrant of arrest for criticizing the government on air. “It’s an honor to receive this in the name of my father, but not a pleasure, because the pleasure would be in receiving it standing next to him,” said the winner’s son, Carlos Zuloaga, as he accepted the award. “But as a result … of the arrest warrant, I come on his behalf and he said that this award is not for him, but rather for the 400 employees of Globovision, who work to defend freedom and democracy in Venezuela.” The younger Zuloaga said his father and brother are seeking asylum in the United States. At the end of its meeting in Merida, IAPA declared 2011 as Year of the Freedom of Speech, announcing that it plans to redouble its efforts to protect journalists and the public’s right to be informed. “We are going to prompt a permanent campaign of the IAPA to defend the freedom of speech,” said Gonzalo Marroquín, the new IAPA president and publisher of Prensa Libre, a newspaper in Guatemala.