The ability of the press to operate freely and without fear is fundamental to the health of democracy

Persona leyendo un diario en una banca

Día Mundial de la Libertad de Prensa

©  Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Press freedom becomes essential to keep citizens informed in an environment where misinformation and information manipulation are constant threats

World Press Freedom Day, celebrated every May 3rd, is a significant occasion that highlights the crucial importance of independent and unrestricted journalism in democratic societies. This date commemorates the Windhoek Declaration, a historic milestone in 1991 where African journalists recognized the need for a free and pluralistic press as an integral part of democracy and sustainable development.

The celebration of this day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the current challenges facing press freedom worldwide. In an environment where misinformation and information manipulation are constant threats, press freedom becomes essential to keep citizens informed and ensure transparency in decision-making.

In this particular context, we have spoken with César Ricaurte, an Ecuadorian journalist and CEO of Fundamedios. The Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study, also known as Fundamedios, is a non-governmental Ecuadorian organization created in 2007 to support media and journalists by monitoring threats and attacks against freedom of expression, as well as documenting violations against the press.

In the following lines, César shares his impressions on the current situation of press freedom in the region and proposes measures that can create an ideal environment for journalists to work freely and without fear.

Cultivating reliable sources of information becomes critical for a journalist in Latin America

FNF: Hi César, you're a renowned journalist with a vast professional experience. Can you tell us what the biggest challenge you've faced as a journalist is?

CR: I worked in media newsrooms until around 2009. We were already facing three huge challenges for journalism that have worsened over time: The first is access to information and public information sources. It's a challenge due to the culture of secrecy or concealment in public administration in our countries, and Ecuador is no exception, even with the existence since the early 2000s of an Access to Information Law. In this scenario, cultivating reliable sources of information becomes critical for a journalist in Latin America.

The second challenge is the pressures from political power, which often manifest through abusive and persecutory exercises of state power. We experienced this strongly during the period of former President Correa, between 2007-2017.

Finally, the third major challenge is the para-state, non-state, and criminal powers that threaten journalists and media outlets that challenge the exercise of this power, which often exceeds that of the state itself. When I practiced journalism, this challenge seemed the most distant to us, although Ecuadorians have always lived with the Colombian conflict and the violence it has generated against the press near our borders, which always appeared as a threat that perhaps we didn't want to see, but we saw it day after day.

Journalists as human rights defenders

FNF: You have won various awards, and during World Press Freedom Day celebrated in May 2012, President Barack Obama included you among the most prominent activists. What motivated you to pursue activism?

CR: My journey into activism was a synchrony that changed my life forever because I first understood that while a journalist is not an activist, they are, in a radical way, a defender of human rights. Their practice must consider this deep belief because failing to do so can lead to cynicism, egotistical vanity, and a profound senselessness that can make you a spokesperson for dark and even criminal powers that threaten our societies.

Activism, in my case, is a personal search for meaning and social values that allow us to have a shared space where respect for democracy and human rights shines.

César Ricaurte
© César Ricaurte

Fundamedios plays a fundamental role in coordinating efforts with civil society and journalists

FNF: How did the idea of creating FUNDAMEDIOS come about?

CR: Fundamedios was created out of an organic need of a group of journalists and citizens from various backgrounds who converged on the importance of journalism in building more just, democratic societies where the fundamental rights of individuals are respected. Then we experienced a period of intense persecution, which gave us an extraordinary resilience. The situation of harassment, stigmatization, and ongoing attacks persists because there are authoritarian groups that still consider us enemies. However, being on a different side from these authoritarian groups is something that fills us with pride and indicates that we are on the right path.

FNF: What is FUNDAMEDIOS' role in promoting quality journalism and defending press freedom in the country?

CR: I believe we have played a key role. Firstly, when no one was paying attention, we brought visibility to what was happening to the Ecuadorian press harassed by a government following an authoritarian model. That government may have passed, but the authoritarian model is still applied by various governments in Latin America, whether right-wing or left-wing. In fact, it is evident that Latin America is experiencing a deep democratic recession, and that's why Fundamedios also started working in other countries in the region.

Now we must confront the violence of organized crime groups that have infiltrated political, state, judicial, business, and even journalistic institutions, as revealed by criminal cases opened by the General Prosecutor's Office in Ecuador. Here, Fundamedios plays a fundamental role in coordinating efforts with civil society, journalists, and media, in assisting journalists who need to be relocated, in demanding government action and funding to implement the protection mechanism. We are especially proud of a holistic mental health program we started this year with extraordinary results to address the profound impact that all this violence has on the emotional and mental health of journalists.

Digital media is the great promise of democracy and quality journalism

FNF: Since the beginning of your career as a journalist, how has the landscape of press freedom in Ecuador evolved over the past decades?

CR: In addition to what has been said before, I dare to add one more factor to consider: the weakening of media ecosystems. Media companies face deep crises, and many are on the verge of extinction. The community sector has grown, but I wouldn't say it is a consolidated sector. Public media outlets have proliferated, but mostly they have become tools in the hands of local leaders with authoritarian tendencies.

Digital media is the great promise of democracy and quality journalism. And in many cases, it is. However, in other cases, they contribute to misinformation, have opaque relationships and financing, and practice unethical journalism. Additionally, we must consider what has already been said about the threats from state power, organized crime, and access to information.

FNF: To what extent is the press truly free in Ecuador and in the Latin American region?

CR: In a geographically, culturally, and politically diverse region, there are many nuances. However, we could say that in much of the region, the press is partially free but in clear decline. In three countries, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, which are more or less declared dictatorships, there is no press freedom.

Even now, there are insufficient protection measures for journalists in the region

FNF: As the CEO of FUNDAMEDIOS, what would you say is the biggest challenge facing press freedom in Latin America today?

CR: To delve into the current state of press freedom in Latin America, especially focusing on the threat posed by organized crime violence to journalism, it's crucial to understand how these factors intertwine with the political and social systems in the region.

In Latin America, organized crime has been a constant challenge to press freedom. Journalists covering topics related to drug trafficking, corruption, and organized crime often face significant risks, including death threats, physical attacks, and assassinations. Organized crime seeks to suppress media coverage of their activities and the sometimes-existing complicity between these groups and elements within local or national governments.

Violence against journalists is an effective intimidation tactic that not only aims to silence specific individuals but also sends a message to the entire journalistic community. This leads to a widespread self-censorship effect, where media outlets avoid covering certain topics for fear of reprisals. Moreover, impunity for these crimes remains high, perpetuating a cycle of violence and fear.

In many countries in the region, protection measures for journalists are insufficient. Government protection mechanisms often lack the necessary resources or political will to be effective. This leaves journalists vulnerable and unprotected, relying on non-governmental organizations and the international community for support and security.

The ability of the press to operate freely and without fear is fundamental to the health of democracy. When journalists are intimidated or killed, the entire society suffers. The lack of coverage on crime and corruption facilitates the continuity of these illicit activities, weakening democratic institutions and promoting inequality and injustice.

FNF: Are there limits to press freedom, and if so, what are they?

CR: Clearly, there are. These limits are marked by the ethical exercise of the journalistic profession and by what I mentioned earlier: the journalist's self-perception as a defender of human rights who, without falling into political militancy, deeply commits to genuinely democratic societies that respect the fundamental rights of individuals.

FNF: What influence does the quality and integrity of information have on society?

CR: It has an enormous influence that is increasingly vital for the situation of deterioration or democratic recession that we are experiencing. There is a direct correlation between the growth of misinformation and the expansion of deeply authoritarian models and ideas, but which are presented as savior alternatives, as beacons of light in the midst of this sense of chaos and darkness in which we are supposedly immersed. Therefore, the journalist's commitment to truth-seeking and the construction of democracy must be unwavering.

4 proposals to create an environment where journalists can work freely and without fear

FNF: What measures do you consider essential to guarantee the independence and security of journalists in Ecuador and the region?

CR: I dare to propose four specific types of measures that require sustained and coordinated commitment from multiple actors, including governments, international organizations, and civil society, to create an environment where journalists can work freely and without fear.

  1. Strengthening Protection Mechanisms: It is essential for governments to strengthen protection programs for journalists, ensuring they have the necessary resources to operate effectively.
  2. International Cooperation: Collaboration between countries to combat organized crime and protect journalists is key. This could include information exchange, support in investigations, and sanctions against those involved in attacks on the press.
  3. Education and Training: Training journalists in personal and digital security and promoting greater awareness of their rights and available legal protections.
  4. Legal and Judicial Support: Strengthening the judicial system so that cases of attacks against journalists are investigated and prosecuted rigorously, reducing impunity.

Press freedom is the oxygen that journalists breathe every day

FNF: Thank you very much, César, for your answers. Finally, why is press freedom important for journalists in Latin America?

CR: Because press freedom is the oxygen that journalists breathe every day. Without that oxygen, they stop breathing and die.

About the author

César Ricaurte is an Ecuadorian journalist with over twenty years of experience in the field. He holds a degree in journalism/social communication from the Universidad Central del Ecuador and obtained a master's degree from the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in 2001.

He currently serves as the CEO of Fundamedios.