In an effort to enhance freedom of expression and access to information in the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Internews organized forums in each country to provide key representatives from media, civil society and state institutions a unique opportunity to share their concerns and hopes on the issues. 120 participants attended the three forums.
The region has experienced an increase in violence against journalists in recent years, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras, due to organized crime and government corruption. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, fear and self-censorship are causing an information void. Due to intimidation and threats of defamation suits or worse, journalists are afraid to report on sensitive issues. There are nevertheless some courageous media conducting investigative reporting in the region, including Internews’ lead online partners, (El Salvador), Plaza Publica (Guatemala) and Revistazo (Honduras).
Internews’ program in the regions aims to empower local journalists to develop high-quality, locally- led, fact-based investigative reporting that sparks public dialogue about transparency and accountability, while giving them the tools and skills to conduct investigations safely and avoid censorship, security threats and retaliation.
An international expert on freedom of expression legislation presented each Forum with a report commissioned from the Covington & Burling law firm reviewing the relevant laws and international agreements. The presentations were a springboard for lively debates in each country on the extent to which these and other regulations are effectively implemented and where improvements need to be made.
Participants noted for example that where good access to information laws exist on paper, in practice delivery is often inadequate. Some also pointed out that regulations for advertising – on which the independent press relies for financial survival – do not adequately protect media from pressure on content exerted by advertisers, notably when governments decide to withdraw public advertising from publications too critical of them.
Concentration of media ownership was also frequently cited as a threat to the plurality and diversity essential to freedom of expression. In all three countries, participants highlighted the absence of regulations for community radios, which provide a vital service and are under-resourced, partly because of uncertainties over their legal and financial status.
At the forum held in San Salvador on May 19, one of the issues highlighted was the need to reinforce mechanisms for the protection of journalists and to strengthen the capacity of the Access to Public Information Institute (IAIP) to build on the important work it has already done.
The forum in Guatemala City took place on May 24, with the speakers stressing the numerous challenges and threats facing journalists and other communicators in Guatemala.
Among the leading concerns expressed in the plenary debate which followed were the need to implement a mechanism for the protection of journalists – threats range from insults and verbal threats, including from government officials, to physical assaults and murders (four so far this year) – and the need to recognize the status of community and indigenous radio stations in the country.
During the Honduras forum, held in Tegucigalpa on May 26, a very frank but cordial exchange of views took place emphasizing the need to strengthen access to public information, end criminalization of social protests and see prompt and effective implementation of the law protecting journalists and social communicators in Honduras.
The plenary session at each Forum was followed by a meeting of a smaller working group comprising representatives from media and civil society. Internews facilitated these sessions in which the working groups identified the priority objectives and action plans for improving freedom of expression, access to information and protection for journalists in their respective countries.
Internews’ work in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is funded by the US Agency for International Development.