Leftist dictatorships aren’t alone in attacking free press. Brazil, El Salvador do the same | Opinion

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Andres Oppenheimer
·4 min read
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It’s well-known that the leftist dictatorships of Cuba and Venezuela censor the media and that Mexico’s leftist-populist president is demonizing independent news organizations. What’s new is that some right-of-center democratic governments in Latin America are stepping up their attacks on the free press.

Perhaps emboldened by President Trump’s claim that independent journalists are “enemies of the people” and by his daily tirades against journalists, Brazil’s ultra-conservative president Jair Bolsonaro and El Salvador’s leader Najib Bukele stand out for their efforts to intimidate independent media.

A new report by the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) says that, “Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are facing their most serious challenges in recent decades” in El Salvador under Bukele.

The March 28 IAPA report says that Bukele’s recent forced entry with armed army troops into the Congress to press for passage of a law was an “unprecedented” action. It added that “the government seeks to impair, discredit and intimidate its opponents, whether directly or through third parties, in person or through social media.”

Bukele, a 38-year-old former mayor and businessman who took office last year, is believed to be behind some of the fake-news farms that, among other things, have hacked mainstream newspapers such as La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy and websites such as RevistaFactum.com and El Faro.net, IAPA officials say.

Using the coronavirus crisis to his advantage, Bukele has been one of Latin America’s strictest enforcers of mandatory quarantine rules.

“The fear is that this pandemic will give him an excuse to become even more authoritarian,” IAPA executive director Ricardo Trotti told me.

Much like in China, Bukele’s government has in recent weeks arrested “hundreds of people” for walking on the streets without proper government authorization and is sending quarantine violators to “containment centers,” the Human Rights Watch advocacy group said Wednesday.

As of April 13, a total of 4,236 people were being held in 87 containment centers, including some detained for violating home-quarantine rules and others held after returning from abroad, a Human Rights Watch statement says.

“President Bukele acts as if any policy is justified to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, even if it’s unconstitutional,” Human Rights Watch Americas’ director José Miguel Vivanco told me. “He thinks that anything goes.”

In Brazil, on the other hand, Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the coronavirus crisis and, almost daily, attacks journalists who criticize him for that.

Much like Trump, Bolsonaro calls independent newspapers such as Folha de Sao Paulo “fake news,” and derides reporters who ask him difficult questions.

“Bolsonaro is doing the same thing as Trump,” Vivanco says. “It’s copy and paste.”

To a lesser degree, freedom of the press advocates also are nervous about a COVID-19 decree issued March 25 by Bolivia’s center-right government of interim President Jeanine Añez.

Under Bolivia’s vaguely worded decree, those who commit “crimes against public health” by “misinforming” the public about the COVID-19 pandemic could be liable to up to 10 years in prison.

While the decree has not been used to muzzle the media so far, it contains “broad and vague language that threatens the criticism of (government) policies or news reports,” the Organization of American States’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression office said in an April 11 tweet.

To be sure, there is much more freedom of the press in Brazil, El Salvador and Bolivia than in Cuba and Venezuela, where there’s none. The Cuban dictatorship has not allowed one single independent newspaper, radio or TV station in more than half a century. Venezuela’s dictatorship only allows a token presence of critical newspapers.

But the fact that there are still more press freedoms in right-of-center democracies is no excuse for what’s happening in Brazil, El Salvador and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia.

Without a free press, there are no checks on government corruption, which tends to lead to greater public corruption and to scare away domestic and foreign investments, key to economic prosperity. The leaders of Brazil, El Salvador and Bolivia, who proclaim to be pro-business, should keep that in mind.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera