First Take: Attacking the Press (English version)

Artwork by Ricardo Trotti

By Gonzalo Marroquín

The parking garage in a Ciudad Juárez shopping center was splashed with blood on the afternoon of September 16, 2010. Photographers Luis Carlos Santiago Orozco, 21, and Carlos Manuel Sánchez Colunga, 18, had been on a lunch break at the mall when they were gunned down. That morning, they had participated in a photography course at El Diario, where both of the young men were interns. Orozco died and Sánchez Colunga was seriously injured.

The young photographers are not isolated cases of attacks on journalists. In just 13 days last year, from June 28 to July 10, four journalists in the Mexican states of Nuevo León, Michoacán and Guerrero died violent deaths. Such cases are prevalent enough to appear even in fictional accounts. In a recent novel, Tijuana: crimen y olvido (Tusquets, 2010), the protagonists, a young woman reporter from Tijuana and a journalist from San Diego, both disappear.

The situation in Mexico is perhaps the most serious on the continent for both common citizens and journalists. That is why this issue of ReVista, which examines some of the issues affecting the press in Latin America, has devoted an entire section to the Mexican situation. In 2010, Latin America became the most dangerous region in the world for journalists. Mexico ended the the year mourning the murders of 11 journalists; another nine were killed in Honduras, two in Brazil and one in Colombia. In the face of this overwhelming violence, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has pointed out how this often translates into self-censorship, and thus into a violation of another fundamental principle: the right of citizens to be informed. It is therefore imperative to put an end to the violence and impunity for crimes against journalists.

For IAPA, ending this situation is one of its most important challenges. One of our priorities is to exhort governments and intergovernmental bodies to propose and establish more active and effective methods to counteract violence and impunity. Thus we have publicly asked the Organization of American States (OAS), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Latin American Association for Integration (ALADI), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), among others, to formulate actions to do away with this scourge of violence, as well as plans to reject any measures that affect press freedom and the full exercise of democracy.

Aggressions and attacks against journalists and the media have occurred in all periods in Latin America. Bombs have destroyed entire newspaper buildings because of press denunciations against political power, the military and drug trafficking when Pablo Escobar was the drug lord in Colombia. These days, however, attacks against journalists are aggravated by a climate of confrontation and polarization generated by populist governments such as those of Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Cristina de Kirchner.

In Cuba, where the government has maintained fierce control for the last 52 years over press freedom, the right to free expression of ideas and access of citizens to information without state censorship, we rejoiced about the release last year of 18 journalists from prison. These journalists had been condemned to severe and unjust prison sentences for exercising their right to freedom of the press. Yet the price of freedom for these journalists was mandatory exile, an act that constitutes a grave human rights violation. Another seven independent Cuban journalists are still in jail.


We are encouraged that several governments in the region are committed to ending violence and impunity and are taking steps to do something about it. For example, in November 2010 the Peruvian government created a special legal jurisdiction to try serious crimes against journalists (murders, injuries, kidnapping and extortion). This is a measure that IAPA, in conjunction with the Council of Peruvian Press, had been urging for several years.

We are also pleased that in 2010 five criminals were condemned for murders committed in Brazil and Venezuela, and another 11 have been imprisoned or arrested and awaiting trial in Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico.

Since 1995, IAPA, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has prioritized the search for justice for murdered journalists and punishment for the perpetrators. As a result, since 1995 until August 2010, 126 murderers of journalists have been condemned, a statistic that contrasts with the five murderers receiving sentences before 1995. This drop in the impunity rate was highlighted in an independent journalistic study solicited by the Knight Foundation entitled “La muerte de la noticia: Muchas crónicas quedan sin publicar debido a los asesinatos de periodistas latinoamericanos,” (Killing the News: Stories Go Untold as Latin American Journalists Die,

Our register of journalists in the last 15 years shows that the 230 killed include 19 who disappeared, some of whom are presumed dead. For IAPA, the mere compiling of these statistics about fatalities, each of which represents a family yearning for justice, is an urgent commitment that humanizes our task of safeguarding freedoms of the press and expression, themes that we have been demanding for more than a decade, as editors from Mexico gathered in several forums in Hermosillo and Mexico City in recent years have attested.

In addition, in a joint mission with the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), we visited President Felipe Calderón, who committed himself to implement a centralized system of protection for Mexican journalists and to promote legislation making crimes against freedom of expression to be federal crimes. In July 2010, a Special Prosecutor’s Office was established to investigate crimes against freedom of expression. Unlike a similar office operating since 2006, the new office enjoys investigative autonomy and the authority to try cases. Despite the grim news from Mexico, these are positive steps.

Another of the “good signs” is in Colombia. The legal reform that increased the statute of limitation for crimes against journalists to 30 years paid heed to recommendations that we made in a legal study entitled “Injusticia Premiada: Un análisis de la impunidad de los crímenes contra periodistas en Colombia” (“Injustice Rewarded: An Analysis of Impunity for Crimes Committed Against Journalists in Colombia”), co-sponsored by IAPA and the Association of Colombian Newspapers (ANDIARIOS), the results of which we presented in Bogotá in 2008 to members of the legislative and judicial branches, who committed themselves to making the suggested reforms.

Another surprising decision in Colombia was that the Attorney General’s Office declared the 1986 murder of newspaper editor Guillermo Cano to be a crime against humanity. The Cano case was one of the first emblematic cases investigated by IAPA. The recent decision means that the crime will stay on the books since it is presumed that it was part of a systematic plan by the Medellin Cartel, headed by drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. The Colombian Attorney General’s Office also committed itself to reopening 27 other murder cases throughout the country, many of which are currently languishing or just filed away.

In spite of these good signs on the part of several governments, it would not be wise to get overly dazzled since our experience has shown us that many promises just stay promises.


From the start of our project to publicize unpunished crimes against journalists, we have had the vision of joining the Interamerican justice and human rights systems by entering into negotiations with governments to resolve individual cases in the courts and continuing to make recommendations for legal and judicial reforms to combat the impunity that affects and will affect others.

Part of our work has been with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). We have brought 27 journalistic investigations to the court since 1997. Three of these cases have resulted in friendly settlement agreements. The most recent was in Brazil, in which the state of Bahía recognized its responsibility in the crime and paid an indemnity to the family of journalist Manoel Leal de Oliveira, who was murdered in 1998. In 2001, we reached a friendly settlement agreement with Guatemala in the case of journalist Irma Flaquer, who was forcibly disappeared in 1980, her son murdered as she was dragged away and never seen again. The agreement included many important reparation measures, including indemnifying eight members of the victim’s family, naming a street in Guatemala in her honor, scholarships in her name, and publication of of materials related to her work, including a book of her newspaper columns and a documentary.

On January 30, 2002, Orlando Sierra Hernández, deputy editor of La Patria of Manizales in the Colombian department (state) of Caldas, was murdered. The murder took place as he arrived at work at two in the afternoon with his eight-year-old daughter in the back seat of his car. A security camera filmed the moment in which the paid assassin shot him three times in the head.

Since then, IAPA has been making independent investigations and keeping a close watch on developments in this case. Several triggermen were accused, judged and sentenced. Finally, eight years after the murder, two former congressmen—father and son—were indicted as the instigators of the crime. The two had been criticized by Sierra in the newspaper.

IAPA publicly congratulated the Colombian Attorney General’s Office “for not giving up in its effort to seek justice for these types of crime against journalism and the entire society,” saying that this display of perseverance and firmness by the authorities serves as an example and at the same time a warning to criminals used to operating with impunity. This is the motor that propels IAPA to continue with its work.


Because impunity is a problem for everyone, we began to adjust the objectives of our project. In addition to investigations, we have begun to train journalists to give them tools that might secure their safety. We have also sponsored judicial and legislative forums, as well as meetings with affected journalists and government authorities. We have conducted education campaigns about impunity through advertising and posters published in newspapers and websites.

To expand our focus on impunity, we have worked with the Supreme Courts in Latin America (for example, in the Dominican Republic in 2007) and with other counterpart organizations, as in Guatemala in 1997. At the end of this summer (2011), we will be holding a hemispheric conference in Puebla, Mexico, on legal and judicial reforms necessary to combat impunity.

We are also involved with a song and composition contest that we’ve called “Dona tu voz para los que no tienen voz” (Donate your voice to the voiceless) to select a hymn against impunity and to publicize this problem among younger audiences and through social networks.

We are aware that some progress has been achieved, but there is still a long way to go. As the independent study by the Knight Foundation has indicated, it is necessary to strengthen our original objective so that the impunity that accompanies crimes against journalists becomes a “problem for all.”

Gonzalo Marroquín is president of the Inter American Press Association. President of the newspapers Siglo 21 and alDía, he was editor-in-chief of the newspaper Prensa Libre in Guatemala for fifteen years. As a journalist, he worked in several Guatemalan media as a reporter and photographer and eventually as an editor. He has also has worked as a correspondent for international news agencies since 1972. He was president of the Guatemalan Journalists’ Association (1984-85).