SANTIAGO – Reporters Without Borders released its updated press freedom ranking. Chile dropped three rungs, with a concentration of media ownership and lack of pluralism. Journalists still face hurdles in their job: a Universidad de Chile journalism student was recently threatened by a mining company amid an investigation for his dissertation.
Journalists in Chile are pressured to maintain the status quo and sweep relevant issues under the carpet, which opposes the very objective of this job. Amid allegations of corruption, embezzlement, and human rights violations, both public and private entities try to undercut reporters and keep them from uncovering stories that are of public interest. On this year’s Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, Chile dropped to No. 54, as the country “continues to suffer from corruption and from hangovers from the military dictatorship.”
The RSF ranking comes at a time when state institutions are being held accountable for their undemocratic attitudes toward the press. President Sebastián Piñera’s government openly backed the unprecedented declaration by the country’s armed forces regarding a television sketch mocking a fictional army general, whereas the opposition supported press rights and disapproved of the military’s actions.
At a regional level in the World Press Freedom Index, Chile is behind Uruguay (18th), Guyana (51st), and Suriname (19th), although RSF reported an overall decline for Latin America and identified the coronavirus pandemic as a catalyst for censorship in the region. The organization also mentioned the espionage incidents affecting journalist Mauricio Weibel and others who were under surveillance by a military intelligence unit, because of their investigative work into corruption in the forces.
“The Army Gave an Opinion”
The executive did not hesitate to support the armed forces after all three branches condemned La Red’s Apr. 16 parody. Government spokesperson Jaime Bellolio dismissed it as just “an opinion.”
Defense Minister Baldo Prokurica piled on, calling it “unacceptable to resort to political satire to besmirch institutions and people that provide an essential service to our motherland.”
Opposition parties were appalled. Socialist party presidential candidate Paula Narváez called the military’s actions “an attack on freedom of speech … which was then endorsed by the government.”
En un grave atentado a la libertad de expresión las FFAA se coordinaron para emitir declaraciones contra @LaRedTV, lo que luego fue avalado por el gobierno. Es inaceptable y condeno que una vez más tengan acción deliberante en democracia. Mi solidaridad con lxs afectadxs.
— Paula Narváez (@paulanarvaezo) April 18, 2021
Human Rights Watch (HRW) director for the Americas José Miguel Vivanco focused on Prokurica’s words of support for the armed forces, calling them “regrettable.”
Chile: me preocupa este lamentable comunicado del Ministro @bprokurica y otros similares de las FFAA.
Muestran un elemental desconocimiento de estándares internacionales sobre libertad de expresión y parecieran destinados a intimidar a quienes critican o parodien a las FFAA. https://t.co/S5AmVTPhp1
— José Miguel Vivanco (@JMVivancoHRW) April 19, 2021
Vivanco also said that Prokurica and the armed forces’ statements show an “elemental ignorance about international standards on freedom of speech.”
Private Businesses Not an Exception
Intimidation is not exclusive to state institutions. Journalists reporting on the behavior of large corporations also face threats to their work. Universidad de Chile student Michael Lieberherr was investigating mining company responsibility for environmental disasters affecting rural Chile. Lieberherr told Chile Today that he found the experience “rather unpleasant due to the lack of protection we have.” His work, which is part of his undergraduate dissertation, has been hampered by intimidating phone calls demanding that he stop his investigation. The student, however, is determined to continue.
Universidad de Chile and Coquimbo’s regional journalists’ union also came to his defense. In a statement issued Mar. 31, the university’s journalism school demanded authorities investigate the origin of the threats, find the responsible party, and ensure the free exercise of reporting in the area.
Despite this, Lieberherr said that the prosecutor archived the investigation as “there were no grounds” to pursue it, because threats weren’t made to his physical integrity. “It’s very unpleasant to go through this, and the little protection we are offered is deplorable. Normalizing these situations is very serious,” Lieberherr lamented.