1706476626 Live on alert and always be prepared for the worst

“Live on alert and always be prepared for the worst”: freedom of the press in the hay festival debate

The outlook for journalism in autocracies that repress researchers and restrict freedom of expression is grim. That is the conclusion of the lecture “Dictatorships that persecute journalists” this Sunday at the Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias. In the walled city's romantic Adolfo Mejía Theater, Carlos Manuel Álvarez (Cuba), Laura Aguirre (El Salvador) and Alfredo Meza (Venezuela), who practice journalism that the power outside their country does not tolerate, spoke. The dialogue, which highlighted the close connection between democratic pluralism and freedom of information, was led by an event with Jan Martínez Ahrens, Director of EL PAÍS América.

Panel “Dictatorships that persecute journalists” at the Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias.Panel “Dictatorships that persecute journalists” at the Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias.CHELO CAMACHO

The three journalists were harassed and pressured in one way or another by their countries' governments. Aguirre, director and founder of Alharaca, is the one who points to a less acute situation but with recent deterioration. He explained that in El Salvador “guarantees of freedom of expression and access to information are gradually being undermined.” Although there are no journalists in prison like in other countries, “we are aware that this can happen, there are concrete measures that lead to it.” He argued that they are not under greater pressure due to the immense popularity of President Nayib Bukele or the bad image of needing further attacks to stay in power, are subject to what he calls low-intensity censorship.

This censorship goes beyond the famous case of pressure on El Faro, with attacks on less visible media or journalists who try to educate the entire sector. He mentioned the case of Mariana Belloso, to which Bukele responded in X through one of his press conferences. The president's criticism, Aguirre says, was the beginning of unprecedented online harassment against the editor of Alharaca. This violence escalated into misogynistic threats, such as raping her and her daughters, with not only psychological but also physical effects. The government later intercepted her communications with the Pegasus software, leading her to exile.

Laura Aguirre at the Hay Festival in Cartagena.Laura Aguirre at the Hay Festival in Cartagena.CHELO CAMACHO

The other example Aguirre presented is Carolina Maya, the director of the environmental journalism magazine Mala Hierba. His father was arrested by the state using the emergency regime in force since May 2022, which allows suspects of being criminals to be detained for more than two years without trial and in conditions of detention that some human rights NGOs consider to be equivalent to torture. All of this caused deep sadness in Carolina, Aguirre said.


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For all of these reasons, Alharaca's Berlin-based director is not very optimistic about what lies ahead for her country's journalists. “We hope for the best, but we prepare for the worst,” he summarized in Cartagena. However, he does not expect the government's attacks to increase, as the current system has helped keep Bukele's popularity so high that he is certainly on track for re-election.

In the case of Cuba, the journalist and writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez presented a much more negative but at the same time colder and more impersonal image; a totalitarian state rather than a personalist dictatorship and a much longer path of attacks and censorship. He recounted that independent media began with the birth of 14ymedio in 2014, at a time when the Cuban state was focused on restoring relations with the United States. “That sparked some sort of outburst or enthusiasm that lasted for a year or two. Room for.” “Consolidate before the state, especially the political police, implements a dismantling strategy,” he explained.

Carlos Manuel Álvarez during his panel discussion.Carlos Manuel Álvarez during his panel intervention.CHELO CAMACHO

Young journalists who had just graduated and founded the media were harassed to the point of being forced into exile as the only way to avoid prison, he said. “Both I and other colleagues of my generation have suffered attrition due to a repressive story arc that begins with some harassment and then progresses to frequent arrests and interrogations in order to fabricate a case about being an agent of a foreign agency to be government. If that doesn't work, there will be family coercion, blackmail and repeated “express detentions” which, as he explained, initially provoke rejection but, when repeated, exhaust public opinion.

If nothing works, the goal is clear: departure from the island, which is not always a voluntary exile. “I am not an exile, I am an exile,” he explained of his case. The author of “The Intruders” cannot board a flight to Cuba, he has no way of returning to the streets of his childhood. With bans like those under which he suffered, he explained in the lecture, the government is trying to prevent Cuban civil society from organizing. He clarified that this pressure is not the same for all journalists, as the repression is greater for those outside Havana or for less well-known journalists. “The political power knows what punishment to inflict on whom,” he concluded, pointing out that there is no hope for political change and thus an improvement for journalists in his country.

Alfredo Meza, one of the founders of the investigative medium Armando.Info, is more optimistic. He explained that in his native Venezuela, the government has managed to create a strong information hegemony, especially through the control of television, where media like his or the Cocuyo Effect have a less massive impact than the plurality previously seen on radio existed. the printed press or television.

Alfredo Meza speaks during the panel discussion on January 28, 2024.Alfredo Meza speaks during the panel discussion on January 28, 2024. CHELO CAMACHO

This hegemony was achieved through state or related media, but also through procedures such as orders and legal accusations against independent journalists. An example is the assassination of prosecutor Danilo Anderson in 2004 through the unusual use of a bomb, which ended with the indictment of several people critical of the government, including journalist Patrica Poleo. The former director of the newspaper “El Nuevo País” then went into exile in Miami and has lived in the USA ever since. In a repeated appeal, Meza elaborated. Less than a week ago, prosecutors ordered the arrest of journalist Sebastiana Barráez and ten others for allegedly conspiring to assassinate President Nicolás Maduro and the governor of Táchira. The protagonist of the lecture was actually a victim of another similar situation. Armando.Info was the media that exposed the irregularities in the participation of the Colombian Alexa Saab in various public procurement programs with the Venezuelan government, which earned her a defamation lawsuit. The possible consequences included years in prison and the bankruptcy of the media, forcing Meza and three other colleagues to go into exile.

Other mechanisms, such as the withdrawal of the passports of some journalists who want to leave the country and the administrative burden involved in recovering these passports, undermine trust. Added to this is the country's economic debacle, which has led many journalists to look for other sources of income in Venezuela or abroad, as part of a wave of migration that caused the country to lose about 20% of its population.

Unlike his colleagues, Meza still hopes for a change in political power. Despite the recent disqualification of opposition candidate María Corina Machado and the opposition's still uncertain reaction to this decision, the journalist points out that polls show strong support for change. “This makes it difficult to say that there will be no real change in Venezuela,” he argued in Cartagena, although he acknowledged that it had happened several times in the past that “this hope for change in a free election is not true becomes.” “

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