Hugo Chavez and allies on the retreat, but still after the media

By Jackson Diehl

The illness of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has reinforced the conclusion among many Latin American analysts that the populist-authoritarian movement he leads has crested and begun to recede, along with the threat it poses to democratic governments and human rights. But you wouldn't know that from listening to editors and publishers of the region's leading newspapers.

The assembly of the Inter-American Press Association in Lima, Peru, which I am attending, has featured a gloomy series of reports about mounting attacks on the press by authoritarian governments as well as by organized crime. In the last six months alone, 21 Latin American journalists have been murdered, including five in Mexico, five in Honduras and four in Brazil. Most were killed by drug traffickers or other criminal gangs who, with increasing success, are trying to stop all reporting about their activities.

Meanwhile Chavez's government in Venezuela and like-minded allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Argentina are steadily raising the pressure on remaining independent media --using the more subtle tools of political prosecutions and economic pressure. "We are in a war between authoritarianism and democracy," said Gonzalo Marroquin, the Guatemalan president of the 69-year-old press association, in a speech that reflected the general sense of crisis and urgency at the assembly.

One focus of discussion -- and a driver of much of the angst -- is the assault by Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa on one of the region's most venerable newspapers, the 90-year-old El Universo of Guayaquil. Correa sued the paper for defamation last March after its editorial editor published a column criticizing the president's behavior in a confrontation with striking police.

What followed was a judicial farce: After several judges retired or declined to hear the case, a newly-appointed "temporary judge" took over the case in late July and held one hearing before issuing--33 hours after his appointment--an 156-page ruling that found the editorial writer and three of the paper's directors guilty. They were each sentenced to three years in prison and fined $10 million, while another $10 million fine was assessed to the newspaper -- enough to shut it down.

After an equally farcical appeals hearing, the case is now before Ecuador's supreme court. It is, said Claudio Paolillo of the association's press freedom committee, "the emblem of governments that are seeking to consolidate power using illegal laws. This is the new populist paradigm of attacks against freedom of the press."

There were other concerning reports: in Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is attempting to nationalize the one domestic producer of newsprint. This would allow her to control supplies to the nation's two leading dailies--La Nacion and Clarin--which she despises for their independent reporting. An Argentine journalist reported to the assembly that 80 percent of the country's media now is directly or indirectly controlled by the government.

If there was a positive sign -- and a signal of where the region may be going -- it came in the cautious welcome given to the assembly by the newly-elected Peruvian government of Ollanta Humala. A left-leaning populist and former Chavez ally, Humala distanced himself from Caracas during his campaign last spring; during his first three months in office he has adopted a centrist course on the economy.

Humala agreed to speak at the conference today, and listened quietly while Marroquin lambasted the abuses of Chavez, Correa, and Kirchner. When his turn came to speak, he did not mention them, but told the assembly he believed in media as organs of accountability. "Tell us the truth…tell us our mistakes so we can correct them," he said.

Humala went on to say that he opposed media acquiring "economic power," and spoke of "tense moments with various sectors of the press" during his campaign. But overall his speech offered another tentative signal that his government will not follow the Chavez model. If so, that would confirm that the wave of Latin authoritarianism really is receding.