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In a tiny town in Argentina’s sparsely populated La Pampa province, a newspaper editor was assaulted on 19 January by the wife and son of the town’s deputy mayor after publishing a piece critical of the municipal government.

A 26-year-old community newspaper in Porto Alegre, Brazil, with a circulation of five thousand was forced to close last week after a court ordered it to pay thousands of dollars in damages to the mother of the ex-governor of Rio Grande do Sul state.  The paper had run a prize-winning story linking the governor’s brother to a corruption ring.

Three journalists in Peru’s southeastern Ayacucho region reported on 26 January that they had been stalked, threatened, and publicly defamed as murderers and terrorists after publishing a report alleging the misappropriation of millions of dollars in public funds by the regional governor.

On 18 January, as IPI  previously reported, a radio journalist in Nagua, in the Dominican Republic, was convicted of libelling a lawyer and ordered by a judge to pay a fine of 1 million pesos – 5,000 times the maximum allowed by the country’s media laws in defamation cases.

These incidents, far from being isolated, highlight one of the most significant obstacles to press freedom in Latin America: autocratic regional and local authorities who view investigative reporting as a threat to their otherwise unchecked power.  Indeed, journalists and media outlets investigating local corruption often become the targets of violent crime.

Moreover, local and community newspapers often depend upon advertising space purchased by those same authorities, who may in turn take advantage of this dynamic to control content.  As such, journalists investigating local corruption or links between local officials and organised crime can be forced into self-censorship.

This deeply troubling state of affairs, combined with the murderous reach of drug cartels and inefficiency and inaction on the part of national governments, has led to local and community journalists suffering disproportionately in Latin America’s growing press freedom crisis – a point borne out by IPI statistics.

According to IPI’s Death Watch, of the 31 journalist killings in Latin America last year, 25 occurred outside of major metropolises.  Moreover, approximately three-fifths of all threats and instances of aggression against journalists in the region recorded by IPI in 2011 took place in regional areas and municipalities – where measures for journalist protection are ineffectual or non-existent.

This alarming trend has continued unabated into 2012.  2 journalists have been murdered in Latin America so far this year, both in rural Brazil.  Of the 40 cases of threatening or aggressive behaviour toward journalists documented by IPI since the beginning of January, 24 have come from outside of the largest urban centres, with Brazil, Peru, and Mexico accounting for more than half of those.

“It is now more dangerous to be a regional journalist in Latin America than almost anywhere else in the world,” said IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills.  “In the absence of the democratic rule of law, local journalists attempting to break the cycle of corruption and mismanagement are being silenced by those desperate to hold onto power and money.”

The problem of local strongmen is particularly prevalent in South America, where 10 of the 11 journalists murdered last year were known for their critical writings about local officials and institutions.  Brazil and Peru, whose size and geography further impede efforts to protect regional media outlets, together accounted for seven of those 10.

Among the victims was Brazilian journalist Valderlei Canuto Leandro, who was gunned down in Tabatinga, a city of approximately 50,000, located in the far west of Amazonas state near the Colombian border.  According to local media, Leandro had been threatened with death by Tabatinga mayor Samuel Benerguy several months earlier after Leandro published reports on alleged municipal corruption, including the misappropriation of school food.

Other critical regional media voices are subject to physical attacks, kidnappings, and death threats.  In Yapacaní, Bolivia, last year, supporters of a local mayor destroyed a radio station and a television station in November in response to what was seen as a smear campaign carried out by the broadcasters against the mayor.  In August, the mayor of Balsapuerto, Peru – who was under investigation for the murder of 12 native Shawi people – beat up a journalist who had approached him about unpaid bills.

7 of the 25 local or regional murders last year, all in Mexico, have been linked to organised crime.  All involved a kidnapping or attempted kidnapping and occurred in Mexico’s northern states, where the drug cartels are most active.  Many of the killings – including the beheading of Nuevo Laredo editor and social media administrator Mayra Macías Castro – were almost unspeakably brutal.

While all journalists who report on organised crime can become targets for reprisal, regional journalists who do so often lack basic police protection.  In countries such as Mexico, attacks against journalists are handled by state and local authorities who may be beholden to or in collusion with the drug cartels themselves.  As a report on violence against journalists in Colombia and Mexico published in 2010 by the Inter-American Dialogue put it, “the investigation of a crime against a journalist might not be in the interest of local authorities.”

Though the most common methods of silencing regional and local media across Latin America remain murder, physical assault, and arson or grenade attacks on newspaper buildings, less conspicuous techniques are also being employed.  These include arbitrary police closures of news outlets, Internet denial-of-service attacks, and de-facto censorship through the mass purchase of a single newspaper issue.

In Sincelejo, Colombia, last year, two individuals bought all 2,500 copies of an edition of the newspaper “El Meridiano de Sucre”, which covered links between a paramilitary group and local politicians, the paper’s editor-in-chief told the Colombian Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP).

Similar manoeuvres were used to suppress the distribution of the Mexican political magazine Proceso in cities across the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Veracruz, Nuevo Leon, Guanajuato, Durango, and Puebla.

A further difficulty – particularly in countries with high rates of general crime, such as Mexico and Honduras – is that the killings of journalists are often made to look like robberies and are investigated as such by police.  IPI strongly urges local investigators to maintain an open mind when approaching the murder of a journalist.

“Press freedom is a critical, indivisible element of democracy,” Mills said.  “We urge both local and national governments in Latin America to refrain from persecuting journalists for doing their job-which is to investigate and tell the stories that citizens need to hear.  IPI is committed to working together with press freedom organisations inside Latin America to raise awareness of the issue and advocate for the rights of regional journalists.”