The sixth Summit of the Americas ended without a joint declaration, in part due to differences over democracy promotion, reports suggest. While Latin American democracy has made great strides, a new report on violence against Mexican journalists (left) and a new U.S.-Colombia trade deal are both reminders of continuing threats to freedom of expression and association.
A new U.S.-Colombia Free Trade pact will come into effect after President Barack Obama certified Colombia’s labor protection clauses in a deal that was welcomed by business groups, but criticized by labor union and human rights activists.
The deal is a “win” for both nations, said Obama, creating “thousands” of jobs in the U.S., while giving Colombia greater access to its largest export market.
“This landmark agreement opens the door to new business opportunities, economic growth and job creation in the U.S. and Colombia,” said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Thomas J. Donohue.
But the deal was criticized by the largest U.S. labor federation and human rights advocates.
“We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, claiming that Colombia’s government had failed to honor a pledge to prosecute and reduce impunity for those guilty of slaying union activists.
In the absence of “sustained, meaningful and measurable action to change the culture of violence,” the trade deal should have been deferred, the union said.
“Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for union activists,” says the Solidarity Center, the federation’s Washington-based international arm. “In the last 20 years, 4,000 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered. Each year, more union activists are killed in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. But an atmosphere of impunity has ensured that only a tiny number of these murders have been prosecuted and the criminals brought to justice.”
“Less than 10 percent of the nearly 3,000 cases of trade unionists murders since 1986 have reached a conviction,” the AFL-CIO leader wrote in an open letter to the president (right). “The powers behind the crimes remain almost completely free from punishment. None of the 29 labor activists killed in 2011 had their cases resolved by a successful prosecution.”
About 3,000 unionists have been killed since 1986, according to the National Labor School, a rights monitoring group:
Colombian labor activists complain the Labor Action Plan has been a fig leaf that has not done enough to protect trade unionists in the world’s most dangerous country for labor organizing. At least 30 trade unionists were killed in Colombia last year and four so far this year, according to Viviana Colorado of Colombia’s National Union School, which tracks the figures. That is down from 51 killed in 2010.
“President Obama lost a historic opportunity to improve labor rights in Colombia, at a time when many Colombian labor rights activists are getting harassed and killed,” said Gimena Sanchez, the group’s Colombia associate.
The job of Mexican journalists covering drug trafficking and organized crime along the Mexico-U.S. border has been called the most dangerous job in the world, writes Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and an adjunct fellow in the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In broad swaths of the border region, and increasingly in central and southern Mexico, there simply is no real news being reported. Basic rights to free expression and public information are being denied. In many ways the experience of Mexico today mirrors the experience of journalists in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, when much of that country was a war zone and reporters and editors were being killed or driven into exile by drug traffickers, paramilitary squads, and Marxist guerrillas, he writes in Dangerous Work: Violence Against Mexico’s Journalists and Lessons from Colombia, a new report from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). Yet the response of the governments and media organizations in the two countries could hardly be more different, nor could the results. Many of the successful steps taken in Colombia could be implemented in Mexico in a relatively short time.
While the media in Colombia, when attacked largely in the main urban centers, banded together both to publish investigative pieces and urge government action, media leaders in Mexico have remained virtually silent and have abandoned efforts to create a unified strategy, carry out common investigations, or highlight the plight of journalists. In Colombia, the political power of the national media, mostly operating out of the capital, Bogotá, was brought to bear on the political process.
This marks perhaps the biggest differences between the Mexican and Colombian responses in the early days of the threat. While there has been virtually no public, coherent statement or advocacy by the established media giants based in Mexico City, the powerful national media in Bogotá coalesced into an effective voice and lobbying group for media protection in Colombia. One of the biggest steps in Colombia proved to be one of the most difficult: the decision among multiple news organizations not only to collaborate on stories to make silencing the press much more difficult, but to jointly publish the same stories on the same day.
There are several reasons for the two countries’ different responses, but perhaps the most important is that in Colombia the national media and the political elite (presidential candidates, attorneys general, labor leaders) were targeted by the Medellín cartel, drawing national and international attention and forcing these powerful groups to forge a common strategy in order to survive. Pablo Escobar and other cartel leaders were expressly at war with the Colombia state, in large part to halt the national policy of extradition.
In Mexico, by contrast, almost all of the attacks have been against local targets far from the capital, drawing little sustained national attention and even less of an international response. As Mexican journalists acknowledge, the capital is so far removed in terms of political power, influence, and decision-making that it is almost a separate entity from the rural hinterlands.
The Colombian government, with the backing and funding of the international community, began a program to physically protect journalists under threat; establish an early warning and rapid response system to relocate journalists and their families on short notice; create a special prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes against the media; and establish an interagency group of senior government officials and leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to review the security situation for threatened journalists every six months.
In contrast, the Mexican government has not yet made killing a journalist a federal crime, leaving investigations in the hands of often corrupt and compromised local officials; has not established a functional special prosecutor’s office that will actively investigate crimes; and has failed to have senior government officials engage in a sustained way on the violence or work with media organizations on strategies and policies to mitigate it.
There is a surprising consensus among journalists interviewed for this report, the available literature, and press freedom groups on what steps have a significant impact on protecting the lives of journalists, ending the cycle of impunity, and changing society’s attitudes toward the attacks on the media and the parallel loss of freedom of expression and access to information.
These steps include:
? Following through on making attacks on the media, particularly murders, a federal rather than a state or local crime, in order to remove the investigations from often corrupt or intimidated local law enforcement groups. This fundamental legal change would be significant in ending the cycle of impunity and the botched investigations that currently feed the violence.
? Strengthening the special prosecutor’s office, with additional funding and staff, to more effectively go after those accused of these crimes.
? Forming a common front in the media to tackle the problems of security for journalists and the risks of reporting on transnational organized crime.
? Persuading national opinion leaders to speak out about the violence and its impact on society.
? Targeting international aid specifically for the protection of journalists
Dangerous Work: Violence Against Mexico’s Journalists and Lessons from Colombia is a publication of the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). The Center is an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracythat works to strengthen the support, raise the visibility, and improve the effectiveness of media assistance programs by providing information, building networks, conducting research, and highlighting the indispensable role independent media play in the creation and development of sustainable democracies around the world. An important aspect of CIMA’s work is to research ways to attract additional U.S. private sector interest in and support for international media development.
CIMA convenes working groups, discussions, and panels on a variety of topics in the field of media development and assistance. The center also issues reports and recommendations based on working group discussions and other investigations. These reports aim to provide policymakers, as well as donors and practitioners, with ideas for bolstering the effectiveness of media assistance. For more information on CIMA, please visit http://cima.ned.org