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Latin America: Analysis of Freedom House's Freedom of Internet Report, Part One

U.S.-based non-governmental research organization Freedom House has conducted a study of the freedom of print and online media around the world. In part one of this two-part article, Walker Rowe explores the background to the current state of internet, broadcast and print media freedom in Latin America and highlight some of the details of the Freedom House reports.

In the past, Latin America was ruled over by military governments who shut down all opposition with a heavy hand. Now the scene is much different. Former leftist guerillas that once fought the dictators have come to rule in the democracies of Uruguay and Brazil. The communist who led the militants that almost succeeded in killing the dictator in Chile now is a senator there. In Mexico, the PRI political party, which used patronage, vote buying, and corruption to hold onto power for 71 years, is back in power again. This time humbled after having been evicted from office, it’s now led by a telegenic young president who is bringing genuine reform to a nation still bottled-up by monopolies and state-run enterprises in certain sectors of the economy. He has taken on the militant teachers union there where jobs are passed down from one generation to another as inheritance. 

Gone are the days when Latin American nations were known as “Banana Republics”, mocked by Hollywood in such movies as Woody Allen’s “Bananas”. No longer is the US pouring money into opposition parties to create the chaos that led to military rule in Chile nor running proxy wars there (although they remain engaged in fighting drug trafficking with helicopters, weapons, and logistical support that some say just adds to the chaos).

South America is thriving today with a few exceptions, like Paraguay, which is still under the thumb of the ruling families who own most of the land. Peru, Colombia, Chile, Mexico (which really is in North America), and even Ecuador have surging economies, low unemployment, and stable currencies, and, with the exception of Ecuador, a mainly free press. Brazil has seen its roaring economy slow, but that oil- and agriculture-rich nation is certain to rebound as it has lots of the natural resources and the surge in prices for such resources is responsible for the strong growth elsewhere in South America. Venezuela and Cuba are not among the list of countries where the news is good.

The picture further north is not so bright with the exception of Panama, a banking center that is home to many retired Americans, and Costa Rica where outsourcing IT and ecotourism are popular. Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and even tiny Belize have seen drug trafficking bring violence to their shores. El Salvador suffers widespread criminal activities led by criminal gangs, formed in Los Angeles, whose members were deported from the US and have set up shop back at home.

Across all these areas, there remain obstacles to a truly free society and freedom of expression.  Social media has been used in places like Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina to bring together the masses who want an end to corruption, high levels of crime, and the heavy-handed tactics of the police. Bloggers have a large following and influence in countries where other means of communication are not as open, yet they have been subject to government meddling and even violence from criminal elements.   

Beyond those pockets of uncertainty there is freedom to say what you want elsewhere, perhaps threatened only by the risk of lawsuit that would seem harsh to the Americans but not as unusual in the UK. Newspapers in Latin America are still profitable and thick with advertising, unlike those in the US that have been driven out of business by the internet after their advertising revenue dried up. People who can afford internet have it; most people have cellphones, a large number of which are smartphones with internet access. Netflix has entered the market, while Amazon.com has yet to do so, perhaps because there is not a solid delivery infrastructure: there is no UPS or FedEx-style efficient way to deliver goods in most places.

Freedom to say what you want in the newspaper, on television, and on the internet is the focus of study of the organization Freedom House, not just in Latin America but also around the world. The watchdog has compiled studies this year on freedom of the print and online media. One criticism of the report that we can point out at the onset is the editors have chosen to survey only the countries where there traditionally there has been mayhem. They could, for example, have included stable and free democracies, like Chile and Uruguay, to help dispel that Banana Republic image.

The report defines “freedom” using three metrics:

  1. Obstacles to access: including infrastructure and economic barriers such as taxes and low wages
  2. Limits on content: blocking websites, censorship, diversity of online news media, the use of the internet for social and political activism
  3. Violation of user rights: illegal measures, repercussions, physical attacks

They divide up the map of the world into four colors:

latam-internet-1

 Freedom on the Net 2013, source:  Freedom House

 

  1. Yellow - partly free
  2. Green - free
  3. Grey - not surveyed
  4. Blue - not free

They attach a numerical score to each country ranging from 0 (most free) to 100 (least free) based upon the three metrics outline above.

Among Latin American nations, only six were surveyed. (If the report had picked Uruguay and Chile, it would have painted a less repressive picture of the regions.) These six nations were given the following scores:

  • Argentina: 27
  • Brazil: 32
  • Ecuador: 37
  • Mexico: 38
  • Venezuela: 53
  • Cuba: 86

  latam-internet-2

Freedom of the Press 2013, source: Freedom House

 

Part two of this article provides highlights from the internet freedom report and a description of political life in the countries in Latin America. Click here to read part two now.

 

Walker Rowe is a US citizen living and working in Santiago, Chile. There he edits the online magazine SouthernPacificReview.com and is currently writing a book about the pollution of the coast of Chile.

 

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Walker Rowe

Walker Rowe is a US citizen living and working in Santiago, Chile. There he edits the online magazine SouthernPacificReview.com and writes the blog "The Avocado Republic" about life in rural Chile.

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