Commentary: A threat to democracy

Here's the most immediate threat to democracy in the Americas: a concerted move by authoritarian leaders to silence independent media throughout the region.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, a disciple of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said that when he takes over as president of the 12-nation Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in July he will propose creation of a regional body to defend governments against critics in the media.

I'm not kidding. In what would be seen as a bizarre attack on basic freedoms in most modern democracies, Correa's May 28 statement called for "creation of mechanisms to defend citizens and legitimately elected governments against abuses by the press." The proposal was immediately backed by Venezuela and Bolivia, whose presidents routinely refer to any criticism in the press as "media terrorism."

What's worse, the three countries' move to demand harsher penalties against independent media comes at a time when Correa is using legal shenanigans to close down his country's Teleamazonas television network, and as Chavez has publicly ordered his Cabinet ministers to shut down Globovision, the most courageous television station in Venezuela. Chavez already shut down RCTV, Venezuela's oldest television network, in 2007.

During his May 30 weekly radio address, Correa said he would take legal action to "finish now with the corrupt press." Hours later, Ecuador's National Council of Telecommunications, CONARTEL, upheld a $20 sanction against Teleamazonas for airing images of a bullfight on Feb. 17 during the 6 am to 9 pm slot in which bullfight broadcasts are forbidden. A second violation – no matter how innocent – could lead to the station's 90-day suspension, and the third one to the station's closing, according to Ecuador's laws.

In Venezuela, Chavez demanded May 28 that the attorney general and the public works minister "take action" against Globovisión, or resign from their posts. The Chavez government has opened an investigation into Globovision for allegedly "inciting panic" in the population by scooping government networks with a May 4 report on an earthquake in Caracas.

Globovision was the first to report – accurately – that the earthquake was of a 5.4 magnitude.

Carlos Lauria, Latin America's director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (of which, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a board member) told me that most other governments are mum about these attacks on the media.

"It's astonishing that, at the June 2 Organization of American States annual meeting, they spent their time talking about Cuba's readmission, and I didn't hear of anyone talking about government attacks on the press that are going on right now in Venezuela, Ecuador and other countries."

In a joint statement in late May, the semi-autonomous Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression from the United Nations and the OAS expressed their "concern" over Venezuelan government statements that they said "generate an atmosphere of intimidation in which the right to freedom of expression is seriously limited."

Asked about Correa's latest proposal to create a regional mechanism to defend governments against independent media, OAS Special Rapporteur Catalina Botero told me, "I'm not aware of the details of the proposal. But what we think is mostly needed is to strengthen those institutions that defend freedom of expression from governments, not the other way around."

My opinion: I couldn't agree more. What's most daunting about the latest attacks on the media is not that the narcissist-Leninist presidents of Ecuador and Venezuela are trying to silence independent media – after all, they need a controlled press to fulfill their goals of becoming presidents for life – but the fact that leading democracies in the region are not sounding the alarm. They should be raising hell. According to the 2001 OAS Democratic Charter, the group's 34 member countries have "an obligation to promote and defend" democracy, including freedom of the press.

Yet where's the outcry over the latest attacks on the media? I haven't seen a regional outrage at the bizarre idea of creating a regional body to silence independent media, or at the latest threats to shut down Teleamazonas and Globovision, much like Venezuela's RCTV was taken off the air two years ago.

If the region's leading democracies remain mum, they will be contributing to the growing perception that inter-American treaties calling for the collective defense of fundamental freedoms are a joke. And they will be digging their own graves.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.