In a Lethal 2022, 37 Journalists Murdered in Latin America

Leopoldo Maldonado, general director of Articulo 19. Photo: Taken from the Universidad de Guadalajara

Regional director of Article 19: “Authoritarians place journalism as an enemy.” The case of Nicaragua “is more painful, but it is not the only one.”

By Octavio Enriquez (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Through November, Latin America has seen 37 murders of journalists, according to the Office of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This is the highest number since 1998.

In a region crossed by different threats, among them organized crime or the authoritarianism that is always present in our history, Leopoldo Maldonado, regional director of Articulo 19, identifies “criminal governance” as the main threat to the job of reporting.

Articulo 19 is one of the largest and most influential organizations defending freedom of expression. From Mexico, where he has been stigmatized by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Maldonado and his team have focused on a region where the powerful use different methods to silence journalism: the most violent is murder, exile is another.

Currently, twenty media outlets and more than 150 Nicaraguan journalists work in exile, as a result of direct attacks by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

“Authoritarians place journalism as an enemy. The case of Ortega and Murillo is the most painful in the region, but unfortunately it is not the only one. Authoritarianism spreads like a pandemic and we have strong regressions,” said Maldonado in this interview with Confidencial and the program Esta Noche, broadcast on December 14th.

Maldonado congratulated the Confidencial team for winning the third place in the award of the Latin American Conference of Investigative Journalism (COLPIN) for an investigation into the Ortega-Murillo business network.

The IACHR published data on how the year ended with 37 homicides of journalists. Who are the ones responsible for this violence?

In countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or Haiti one could think that it is organized crime that has a base, or a very well-tuned interaction with the state apparatus, local politicians or politicians at the national level. Yes, it is organized crime, but in collusion with these political apparatuses or local chieftains. In addition, there are economic power groups, even legal, formal ones, that have interests. We have called it criminal governance.

If we take a closer look at the number of attacks received by journalists covering corruption and politics, they by far exceed those who cover security sources or police matters. dkThey are basically journalists who cover corruption and political issues because that is where these structures that I have already mentioned are.

Is this the main threat to journalism at the moment?

We endorse what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has said: to kill a person for what he/she gathers, thinks, or says, is the most brutal form of censorship, of anti-democracy. They may not agree, they could be uncomfortable with what is said, but to pull a trigger, to end a life for publishing, evidently attests to the social degradation and the state of the democratic rule of law in our countries in Latin American.

Because on top of that comes the companion of these murders, which is impunity, an impunity of 98% that starts the cycle again. To greater violence, greater impunity. It sends the message that these atrocities can continue to be committed.

Articulo 19 denounced last week President Lopez Obrador for his attacks, how does the stigmatizing discourse of those in power influence the attacks on the press?

In addition to the old forms of authoritarianism and censorship to which we are unfortunately accustomed to in the region, there are these new forms. These new forms are based on the idea that heads of state are victims of journalism, of public scrutiny, of citizenry, of society. So absurd. They play the victims and that is why they feel —attached to popularity or presumed popularity, which some may not even have that much–, that is why they launch themselves against the population by moving these old levers, this old distrust against the press.

They put everyone under the same umbrella, as if all journalists worked in the same consortiums or were part of the same companies that have traditionally sold their editorial policies to power. But they very cleverly have taken advantage of this social grievance, discontent towards the work of certain journalism and start to harass the press: sold, hired killers, “chayotera” as they say here in Mexico to those (journalists and media) who receive bribes.

We, as a civil society organization, have been attacked by the President (Lopez Obrador). He has said that we are from the conservative block. This has escalated to such a degree that his closest followers say that we are coup plotters. The sensitivity of this is: either they don’t mince their words, the political and legal implications of calling someone a coup plotter; or they do mince them and what they want are the fatal consequences.

In Nicaragua, the ruler’s discourse has stigmatized and persecuted independent media outlets. Currently there are 20 media outlets and more than 150 journalists in exile, how do you assess the quality of this journalism?

It is a necessary, urgent, courageous journalism. By the way, congratulations to you for the award you received a month ago in the Latin American Investigative Journalism Conference. That is the type of journalism we need, which is being done come what may. Authoritarians do not understand that, instead, they place journalism as an enemy. The case of Ortega and Murillo is the most painful in the region, but unfortunately it is not the only one.

Authoritarianism is spreading like a pandemic, and we have strong regressions in democratic matters. What is being done from exile, what you are doing from Nicaraguan journalism is necessary…without losing reliability, impartiality, but being clear that reality asserts itself and it isn’t about being condescending or making concessions to power because they dislike criticism.

Thank you for congratulating Confidencial’s team, we want to ask you: what happens when you are in situations such as Venezuela and Cuba where there is no rule of law that protects the exercise of journalism?

In the Venezuelan and Cuban cases, they are regimes that morally undermine journalism. They completely annul it. In Cuba the practice of house arrest is frequent. But also, all acts of scorn, such as how they mobilize the population to socially ostracize the press and critical journalists. They frighten them. They exclude them, they break their support networks. This, ultimately, is social death. Exile is the same, Octavio.

What exile seeks to do is to break you. It breaks the community fabric, it infringes the journalists’ psyches. In their financial situation certainly. Not only those who are subject to these pressures like El Faro in El Salvador, you in Nicaragua, but it has an expansive effect, a chain effect. When a journalist is killed in Tamaulipas, Mexico, other journalists fall silent. When someone leaves Nicaragua, the others start to shut up.

What would you say about the case of Guatemala where a case was fabricated against journalist Jose Ruben Zamora?

It is a terrible precedent. We saw this situation coming with what has been called the return of the pact of the corrupt. This brutal persecution against journalists, activists and now also judicial operators be it judges, prosecutors, who collaborated or were nourished in the cases against the military genocides, with the technical assistance of the now defunct CICIG. There is revenge, the determination to eliminate all these judicial operators and democratic journalists. The case against El Periodico and Jose Ruben Zamora is atrocious.

Along with this adverse scenario for the press in the region, there is also a fairly marked avalanche of misinformation, can the networks help against this problem?

It is very complex, because there are those who demonize the networks and say that they are the source of misinformation. There are those of us who believe that networks are the opposite. They have an enormous democratic potential. Many things are needed. Of course, from Articulo 19, we do not agree with the attempts to regulate the internet, because it leads us to a trap, they want to impose censorship in the digital realm.

Effectively, there are groups of political, economic and even religious power that have taken advantage of the potential of the internet, of reaching millions of people, of the social networks, above all, to spread their lies, to misinform.

What we must care for and we must uncover, from investigative journalism, are these networks of misinformation and attacks that operate not only in our countries, but throughout Latin America and that are sponsored by governments. This is really an issue that can be sanctioned because it is a misuse of resources. It is still punishable.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times