MIAMI—As the deputy managing editor of Colombia’s newspaper La Patria, Orlando Sierra used his reporting to slam crooked politicians in Colombia’s coffee region, until the January 2002 morning when a hit man shot and killed him on the front steps of his newsroom.
When gunman Luis Fernando Soto Zapasta was quickly caught and convicted, his 29-year prison sentence came to illustrate the first signs of a growing movement: No longer do killers of Latin American journalists go scot free, as they routinely did just a few years ago.
But Soto was freed last week after five years and eight months for good behavior in prison, and he has now become a symbol of the persistence of impunity for crimes against journalists in Latin America. Not only is Sierra’s killer free, but at least 13 witnesses have been slain, and the person who ordered the hit on the journalist was never arrested.
The case underscores both substantial progress and continuing obstacles in a decadeslong effort by Latin American media owners, executives and reporters to win justice for murdered colleagues.
“What do we win with the trigger man in jail for five years and the masterminds free?” said La Patria’s news editor, Fernando Ramirez. “We thought this case was going to be the banner case that represented change.”
Historically, beleaguered justice systems and corrupt politicians and law-enforcement officials have been unable—or unwilling—to prosecute murders that advocates say threaten democracy and the right to free speech in nations such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.
That tide is slowly beginning to turn, press advocates and media executives say.
There were virtually no convictions or even investigations in the cases of murdered journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean as recently as 1995, according to the Inter American Press Association’s anti-impunity committee. The panel has waged a campaign to publicize the killing of journalists and pressure authorities to investigate and prosecute the crimes.
By the IAPA’s count, 320 journalists in the Americas have been killed in 20 years in connection with their work. While many killings have been committed by narco-trafficking terrorist groups like the FARC or paramilitary groups in Colombia, others have come over more-mundane print or broadcast revelations of municipal corruption, often linked to organized crime.
Now, more countries are assigning special prosecutors to investigate the killings, convictions are on the rise, and several nations are stiffening penalties, lifting statutes of limitations and considering bills to make murder of a journalist a federal crime.
In the past decade, according to the IAPA, 64 investigations have been completed, and 82 people are in prison or have served sentences for killing journalists.
The impunity project received a boost Sunday during the IAPA’s convention in Miami, when the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $2.5 million grant to extend the program and broaden its reach to include judges, also increasingly under threat in Latin America.
“What’s most important is that according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report, Latin America is the region in the world where impunity has most been reduced,” said Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz, president of IAPA’s anti-impunity committee.
Progress has been slow but steady, the IAPA says. After five years of the project, the “impunity rate”—the percentage of cases not investigated or prosecuted—stood at 79 percent. Now it’s down to 57 percent.
“Now justice is probable,” said Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen, a former Miami Herald publisher, in an address to the convention. With the new grant, the foundation has invested about $9 million in the impunity project, which also trains journalists in safety practices.
At the same time, though, press advocates say that threats against journalists across the region are on the rise and that rarely are masterminds behind killings arrested. Eight journalists were killed in Latin America in the past six months alone.
“It used to be that threats came from dictators who would disappear you, or drug dealers,” said Sallie Hughes, a University of Miami professor who studies Latin American media. “The difference now is reporters often don’t know where it’s coming from—corrupt politicians, paramilitary groups, organized crime, regular crime.”
Threats, killings and other attacks on journalists, in particular from organized crime, have led to extensive self-censorship in many places, said Roberto Rock, vice president of the Mexican newspaper El Universal and vice president of the impunity committee.
In about a third of Mexico, including all six states bordering the United States, Rock said, newspapers and broadcasters do not cover organized crime, even to the point of not publishing news about arrests or police investigations. In some cases, journalists have left the country or quit the profession.
“The problem is very broad,” Rock said.
But some countries where offenders once enjoyed broad impunity have made the most progress, including Brazil, according to the IAPA.
A Brazilian state court sentenced the mastermind of the killing of Paraguayan journalist Samual Roman to nearly 18 years in prison. Brazil, Ealy Ortiz said, has the highest number of solved cases of any country: 31 people are serving prison terms in 15 murders.
In Peru this month, two military officers were sentenced to more than 15 years for ordering the 1988 murder of journalist Hugo Bustios Saavedra.
“The damage is not just to the journalist but to society, which has the right to information,” said Gonzalo Marroquin, editor of Prensa Libre in Guatemala. “We’re not asking for special privileges for our friends. We’re asking for freedom of expression.”
Despite early signs of progress, the killings continue. In Mexico alone, three newspaper sellers and two journalists were killed in the past six months, and two other journalists are missing and presumed dead.
Five journalists were killed in Latin America in 2002, seven in 2005 and 16 last year, according to Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom report. Nine were murdered last year in Mexico and three in Colombia, where a dozen journalists fled.
“In Colombia, this is a crime that has no punishment,” said Enrique Santos, publisher of Colombia’s leading daily, El Tiempo. “In Colombia, 95 percent of these murders are unsolved.”
That’s why the IAPA formed “rapid response” teams—four journalists around Latin America who investigate killings of journalists and present their findings to law enforcement. The press group, made up of newspaper publishers from Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States, has sent teams of newspaper editors to press for justice at the highest levels of government.
Member newspapers have also run hundreds of ads highlighting the cases of murdered or missing journalists to rouse public pressure.
“You win some and you lose some, but I just want to be in the fight,” said Ibarguen, a former chairman of IAPA’s impunity committee. “You can’t pretend this alone is going to stop the killings of journalists or judges. You do want to make sure people know that if you do this, there is a price to pay and the colleagues are going to try to find you and put you in jail.”