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

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 the second part of this two-part article, Walker Rowe summarize the highlights from Freedom House’s Freedom of Internet Report and provide a description of political life in the countries in Latin America. For each country, we include the metric internet penetration, which means how many households have internet access.   

 

Argentina

Internet penetration: 60%

Internet freedom: 27

Press freedom 2013 status: partly free

Argentina is a unique case as its internet is deemed free but its press as only partly free. The country is known for frequent financial upheavals (it defaulted on its government bonds in 2002) and corruption (the Vice President is facing charges of embezzlement that, if they stick, could send him to prison for six years). Street crime is among the worst in South America and political protests are frequent. One wonders how a country so rich in petroleum, natural gas, grasslands for grazing, soybeans, and corn can have such political and financial instability; some blame the decades-old populist style of government (Peronism and its offshoot Kirchnerism), which is somewhere between socialism and capitalism on the political spectrum. Its policies on current controls, protection of domestic industries from imports and lavish spending on subsidies has caused high levels of inflation and put pressure on currency. To avoid losing their savings, entire families fly to Miami with their children, each with $9,999 USD in their pocket (just below the legal) limit, to buy apartments. This costs them as the black (called “blue”) market exchange rate on the pesos is $10 while in the government it is $6 and there are restrictions on the amount of pesos one can sell for dollars. Kirchnerism is on its way out, perhaps, given the government’s recent devastating loses in October’s congressional elections.

All of this has led to running battles with the press. There has not been the outright takeover of newspapers and television stations as in Venezuela, however. Instead, the government has tried to curb the influence of the country’s two largest newspapers Clarín and La Nación by such measures as controlling their access to newsprint needed to print the newspaper and passing a law that forces the breakup of those companies holding dominant market positions.

One cannot help but be amused at what happens in Argentina on occasion. To attract more supporters, the President launched a program called “Football for Everyone” that stipulates that football games be broadcast free instead of letting cable companies charge a fee. The broadcast journalist Jorge Lanata responded by naming his wildly popular news program, which highlights government malfeasance and corruption, as “Journalism for Everyone”. The president tried to cut into its ratings by scheduling important football matches in the same time slot. That ploy did not word as Lanata’s ratings trumped football, this in a country where business grinds to a halt when important matches are broadcast and which is home to the world’s greatest footballer, Lionel Messi.

Regarding the internet, as is normal with many countries, Argentina has asked the major web sites to take down certain items. It asked Google to remove a YouTube video with CGI effects that shows the president “in a compromising position”. Google did not but placed age restrictions on the video.

On the freedom side, social media has been used to mobilize protesters who have turned out in historic numbers to protest government policy and the high level of crime there.

 

Brazil

Internet penetration: 50%

Internet freedom: 32

Press freedom 2013 status: partly free

Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking nation of 194 million people, of whom 67 million are on Facebook. President Dilma Rousseff is the handpicked successor of her forerunner Luiz Inácio da Silva, whose reign was wildly popular. As is often the case with those who are handed their political position, her popularity ratings have fallen off dramatically. The once surging economy has slowed to a crawl. Violent protests have broken out this year because of corruption and high levels of crime, raising concerns about the country’s ability to pull off without incident the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, both to be held there.

Freedom House points out limitations on internet freedom, many of which are linked to the country’s restrictions on campaigning within three months of an election. They note “increasing limitations on online content, particularly in the context of the country’s stringent electoral laws, cases of intermediary liability, and increasing violence against online journalists.”

Executives at Google face criminal charges for not complying with election-related take-down notices. Not only are candidates prohibited from campaigning online during those three months but ridiculing political candidates is also prohibited then. Of course, ridiculing politicians is great sport and a source of amusement for people around the world, so the Brazil law is somewhat strange.

The country has passed a new legal framework to facilitate take-down notices which it frequently issues to Google, Facebook, and others. (You can see take-down notices by country at the Google Transparency Report website.

Pointing to individual incidents of violence, Eduardo Carvalho, owner and editor of the Ultima Hora news website was murdered in 2012.

 

Cuba

Internet penetration: 15%

Internet freedom: 86

Press freedom 2013 status: not free

One need not read report the Freedom House report to know that Cuba is a repressive regime. Freedom House says Iran, Cuba, and China, “remain among the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to internet freedom.”

Anyone who wants to get online there requires a special permit. There are internet cafes that do offer internet access, where people who do not have their own computers can get online, but these computers include filters and scanner to block access and content. 

The country installed fiber optic cable in 2013, but it is restricted to government offices. People in working offices of any kind have software installed on their email system that blocks chain letters that criticize the government.

Despite being hauled into the streets and beaten publicly, there is a community of bloggers there. The most famous blogger, Yoani Sanchez, recently took advantage of relaxed rules to exit the country to take a worldwide tour including the White House. She was treated as a rock star wherever she went, except by those who support the communist model in Cuba. 

 

Ecuador

Internet penetration: 45%

Internet freedom: 37

Press freedom 2013 status: not free

Although it has political and financial stability now, given its past Ecuador is one of those countries where the joke comes to mind: “What is the way most Presidents in Latin America leave office?”  Answer:  “Helicopter.” That is, one step ahead of those who would have their heads.

President Correa fancies himself part of the Bolivian revolution of which the late Hugo Chavez was the leader. (The name comes from Simon Bolivar who drove the Spanish from the northern part of South America.) Correa, who wears colorful shirts meant to show his empathy with the indigenous people of this Andean nation, is openly hostile to the press. The President used a new libel law, which many see as a threat to freedom of the press, to levy a $40m fine and three years in prison on the publisher of El Universo. The publisher and two of his executives fled to Panama where they were granted political asylum. They returned to Ecuador when international pressure caused Correa to back down.

It is a bit of an irony then that Ecuador has granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently holed up in the Ecuador embassy in London, unable to step outdoors because of fears of being snatched by the British and handed over to the US. The country also probably would have given asylum to Edward Snowden had not Vice President Joseph Biden been dispatched presumably to warn President Correa that his petroleum, cut flowers, and banana exports to the US would face some kind of barriers including tariffs were Ecuador to do so.

Among the concerns voiced by Freedom House include a high tax on cell phones that limits their adoption for internet access. There are three fiber-optic cables in Ecuador and 22 companies that offer internet access, but coverage is sparse in rural areas. People wanting to use cyber cafes to get online must register with the secretary of telecommunications giving their full name, address, email address, and passport number. The National Election Council has said it will begin monitoring social networks.

A documentary film about President Correa was broadcast on YouTube and Vimeo. The government was able to get that removed by a lawsuit that said that images of the president had copyright protection. A radio station that broadcast an interview with the film’s creator was shut down.

On the positive side, Freedom House says Ecuador has a “lively blogging community”. Social media has been widely used by candidates for political office.

 

Mexico

Internet penetration: 38%

Internet freedom: 38

Press Freedom 2013 Status: not free

President Enrique Peña Nieto came to office promising to break up the telecommunication monopoly that has made Carlos Slim the world’s second richest man and has saddled Mexico with high internet and cell phone rates.

Drug trafficking has affected the internet as it has affected security in general throughout the nation. Freedom House points out, “Several online journalists were murdered after refusing to stop writing exposés about drug trafficking and organized crime.”

On the positive side, a public campaign of activists was able to force change to the constitution to guarantee the freedom of internet access. Freedom House says that some government officials have chosen not to report cartel violence in official media, so people are using the internet to warn citizens. 

Social media helped propel the widespread YoSoy132 (I am 32) protests by young people against what they said was biased media coverage of the 2012 political election and the use of police force to break up political protests.

 

Venezuela

Internet penetration: 44%

Internet freedom: 53

Press Freedom 2013 Status: not free

Venezuela is an oil-rich nation turned upside down by political events. The government of the late Hugo Chavez launched a socialist agenda, taking over private companies acquired with government bonds that soon became worthless. The President mocked the rich, taking over their golf courses and building housing there. The skyline of Caracas is dotted with unfinished apartment towers that lack walls and plumbing. For a few cents people can pay a motorcyclist to ferry them to the top, which is better than walking up 20 floors.  

The recent presidential election saw Hugo Chavez’s protégé Nicola Maduro narrowly defeat Henrique Capriles who would have steered this socialist nation back towards capitalism. Capriles was given only a few minutes on television each day to campaign. Internet access was cut off during the election and the vote count was repeated because the margin of victory was so narrow.  

The health of the former President was considered a state secret even as he was dying of cancer. Bloggers (both those who use their own name and those who do not) went online to counter the official news coming from the government. (The constitution prohibits the use of anonymous names online.) The government has tried to usurp popular online social media by creating false Twitter accounts that purport to be in the opposition. Some bloggers are said to be paid by the government.

Social media is widespread. Some news sites have been blocked on occasion. Opposition newspapers have been subjected to DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks to knock the sites off line.

President Maduro has been quite vocal in his attacks on news outlets that have reported on gasoline and fuel shortages. He created the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Fatherland (CESPPA) in part to coordinate lawsuits that target the press and online media. 

There are strict licensing requirements for media. Private media has limited access to public information. Freedom House says, “Journalists are routinely intimidated and harassed by government officials.” The 1999 constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but one could say that speech in Venezuela is not free at all.

 

In part one of this two-part article, we explored the background to the current state of internet, broadcast and print media freedom in Latin America and highlighted some of the details of the Freedom House reports. Click here to go back to part one.

 

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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