The rise of the left and the fall of free speech in Latin America

Maryhen Jiménez Morales explores how leftist political leaders in Latin America have limited free speech in their countries through populist discourse and political propaganda.

Since the late 1990s Latin America has shifted to the left. In several countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela, leftist politicians have been elected into office. Some of these countries’ leaders – such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador – have openly criticised the prevailing political, economic and social order in their countries and suggested the implementation of new systems, in which “the people” might truly participate. To achieve such transformations, Chávez, Correa and Morales have constructed new social movements, convoked constituent assemblies, designed new constitutions, and excluded traditional elites from the political system. Once in office and convinced that their leftist programme must prevail in future decades, these leaders have used state institutions and resources to perpetuate themselves in power. Under their governments, the media and free speech have been constantly targeted.

Prominent scholars like de la Torre and Levitsky have argued that Chávez, Correa, Morales, and others have introduced different notions of democracy to legitimise the increasingly closed space for plural political competition and free speech in the region. Claiming that traditional political party systems and neoliberalism did not guarantee real participation, representation and welfare, these politicians have implemented personalist political systems, manipulated democratic institutions, and corroded free speech in the region. Followers tend not to question the leaders’ actions because they trust them to make the “right” decisions. Over the past years, the presidents of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have censored the media in their respective countries, attracting worldwide attention. While the levels of free speech restrictions vary from country to country, all of these nations share a legal foundation that leftist leaders have promoted to allow the downfall of free speech in Latin America.

Media intimidation and censorship started with Chávez and continued with his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, since 2013. The persecution of media outlets increased dramatically since 2006 in Venezuela. RCTV, the country’s oldest and most popular television channel, was shut down after its license was not renewed. Globovisión, which had remained the only critical TV station, was sold in May 2013. It was claimed that the channel had become politically, economically, and legally unviable. Ever since, Globovisión has significantly reduced its critical programming. Several other TV and radio stations were either sold, closed, or self-censored to avoid collapse. Print media has also suffered. According to Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), newspapers have been induced to sell following administrative fines and have been denied access to foreign exchange. IPYS stated that from August 2014 to December 2014, at least 34 newspapers had difficulties in finding supplies such as paper. During the same period, at least 7 newspapers were forced to suspend their operations and at least three were closed down. Among them, El Universal and Últimas Noticias were sold to international investors in July 2014 and October 2013 respectively. The newspaper Tal Cual has also become a target of the regime. In January 2014, Cabello filed a criminal defamation suit against the newspaper for publishing an opinion piece he disliked. In February 2015, Tal Cual was obliged to cut back its daily editorials and will now only appear once a week as a result of financial distress.

Free speech has also been limited via legal actions. In 2000, the Organic Law of Telecommunications was passed, which allowed the government to interrupt or annul broadcasting concessions to private outlets provided that it was “convenient for the interests of the nation, or if public order and security demand it“. A year later, this law was adapted to include all audiovisual production (including cable TV). The law also reduced concessions to radio networks from 25 to 15 years. In 2004, the Law for Social Responsibility was approved, banning the broadcasting of information that could incite or promote hatred and violence. Finally, in 2005, a penal-code reform extended the desacato (insult) law condemning any behaviour appearing to be “disrespectful of government officials”. According to an article by Javier Corrales in the Journal of Democracy, this law has also limited the use of public spaces for protesting. Political persecution has become a further tool of the chavista regime to curb free speech and anti-regime voices. Several opposition leaders have been targeted following the passing of these laws, including Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, Antonio Ledezma and Daniel Ceballos.

While media persecution has not been as extreme in Bolivia or Ecuador, both countries have also curtailed free speech. Morales has often attacked print media and accused reporters of spreading lies and politically driven distortions. The environment in which journalist and news outlets operate, has been hostile and polarised ever since Morales got into power. Civil society groups have denounced the dramatic expansion of state-owned radio channels and the use of public for governmental purpose. Press groups have also claimed that the government manipulated the state advertising budget to penalise critical outlets and promote friendly ones, warning that due to some government rulings and legislation, the independence of media was under threat. In fact, Morales’ government has passed several laws and changed the constitution to curb freedom of speech. According to Freedom House, the 2009 constitution, while guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of the press, also imposes significant constraints. Article 21 stresses the right to communicate freely, but article 107 imposes a duty to communicate with “truth and responsibility”. Article 107 further emphasises that the media must contribute to the promotion of the ethical, moral, and civic values of the nation’s multiple cultures. Furthermore, the Law against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination of 2010 has caused extensive controversy. While it was claimed to prevent discrimination against indigenous people in the media and their restricted access to media outlets, the law also allows authorities to fine or close news outlets and arrest journalists for allegedly racist publications. Since the law falls under the penal code, journalists may face criminal charges, which impedes journalists to appeal to self-regulating press bodies, as regulated by the country’s press law. In August 2012, the Morales administration used the same law to file criminal lawsuits against the news agency Fides (ANF) and the newspapers El Diario and Página Siete for “inciting racism“. According to the government, these outlets published a headline that supposedly distorted a presidential speech about food shortages.

Like Chávez and Morales, Correa has also threatened the media and created a hostile environment for free speech. Critical journalists may be forced to offer a public apology if the information they are spreading appears to be offensive in any kind. Reporters may also face criminal prosecution for other crimes. For instance, in August 2014, the communications minister called upon El Universo newspaper to publicly apologise for tweeting facts that supposedly damaged Correa’s honour and reputation. Correa also pursued a “legal persecution” of the media in Ecuador. In 2013, the country’s National Assembly passed the Communications Law that enables arbitrary prosecutions and censorship. While the law does not openly restrict free speech, it affirms that published information needs to be “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized“. According to Human Rights Watch, this law enables censorship because it gives the government or judges the power to decide whether any information is truthful or not. Furthermore, the criminal defamation laws have also been used to attack dissidents. In September 2013, the National Court of Justice sentenced opposition legislator José Cléver Jiménez for charges of slandering the president.

As argued above, leftist governments have dramatically limited free speech in Latin America. By using populist discourses and blaming old political elites and capitalism in general for their countries’ malaises, leftist leaders have justified the persecution of the media and harassment of dissidents. This development has been troubling many free speech advocates. Institutions such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have expressed their concern about the growing media censorship and the silencing of dissidents in these countries. Certainly, it is not only leftist governments that have limited free speech through history. But it is especially worrying that leftist governments, which consider themselves the key to progress and liberation, have applied such constraints on free speech in these countries.

Maryhen Jiménez Morales is an MPhil student in Latin American Studies at St. Antony’s College Oxford. Her research looks at contemporary Venezuelan politics and the role of opposition parties under the conditions of electoral authoritarianism. 

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Comments (3)

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  1. Something similar to situation described by this article happened in Argentina, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner were in power. Happily for free speech (and other freedoms), they were unable for ruling the country beyond legal time. But they also wanted to manage or destroy by different ways independent media.

  2. What a great article! Very interesting! I would just like to remind people about Brazil’s case. Although it has been governed by the left wing most prominent party since 2002, the government was never able to overcome traditional political parties or their ‘way of doing politics’. Actually, the PT (worker’s party) played along with these traditional forces. Thus, when it comes to free speech, it seems that nothing has changed much: the main media channels and newspaper are still owned and dominated by the same traditional families. Access is also very selective.

  3. Does anyone doubt that this is exactly where the United States is headed? It may take a few decades but we’ll get there.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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