By Associated Press Writer
updated 3/21/2010 5:44:02 PM ET 2010-03-21T21:44:02

Press freedoms in countries throughout the Western Hemisphere are facing serious threats from authoritarian governments, especially in Venezuela and communist-led Cuba, a group representing news media from across the Americas warned Sunday.

Alejandro Aguirre, president of the Inter American Press Association, singled out Cuba as the region's the worst offender against press freedom.

"The most worrisome case continues to be the case of Cuba, where a dictatorship that has lasted nearly half a century has not allowed a minimum of freedom of expression or free press," Aguirre said in a telephone interview from the Caribbean island of Aruba.

The Miami-based IAPA, which includes 1,380 publications from throughout the Western Hemisphere, is discussing what it considers a host of threats to freedom of expression emerging across the region during a meeting in Aruba. The meeting ends on Monday.

Aguirre also condemned what he called efforts by President Hugo Chavez to silence media critics in Venezuela.

Chavez "has used all the government's tools to close and antagonize the media — doing everything possible so that the flow of information in Venezuela is dictated by the government," said Aguirre, executive director of the Miami-based Diario de Las Americas.

Chavez's administration revoked the licenses of 34 radio stations last year, saying most of them failed to update their registrations or allowed their concessions to expire. Officials have said dozens of other broadcasters could also lose their licenses.

In January, Venezuela's state-run telecommunications regulator ordered local cable companies to drop RCTV — an anti-Chavez TV channel — because the network allegedly defied new rules requiring cable channels to carry mandatory government programming, including some of Chavez's speeches.

Chavez denies attempting to silence his critics. The former paratroop commander has repeatedly rejected the IAPA's criticisms in the past, calling the organization a pawn of the "empire," a reference to the U.S. government.

David Natera, who heads Venezuela's largest association of newspapers, accused Chavez's government of starving newspapers of revenue from public advertising by steering that to pro-Chavez media.

"He's not closing newspapers, but he's strangling them financially," said Natera, owner and publisher of the Venezuelan newspaper Correo de Caroni.

The IAPA is also increasingly concerned that democratically elected leaders in countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia appear to be following Chavez's example by cracking down on critical media outlets.

Violence against journalists is reaching alarming levels in Mexico, where four journalists have been slain so far this year. The IAPA claims a fifth was recently killed in the border city of Reynosa, but media outlets there were too afraid to file a police report. Twelve reporters were killed in Mexico in 2009.

Critics have accused Mexican authorities of not doing enough to stop such attacks — some of which are linked to Mexico's violent drug gangs.

The press association said the lack of justice in crimes against reporters is increasingly driving journalists in Mexico to self-censorship.

In Haiti, the IAPA said the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake crippled the media by destroying outlets' offices, shutting down businesses that provided advertising revenue and killing 31 journalists. In Port-au-Prince, only about a dozen radio stations out of 50 remain on the air.

The report said the damage to the industry has dramatically limited the dissemination of important humanitarian information, especially to people migrating in and outside the capital.

The editors of two Haitian papers, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, pleaded for help, including printing and training for reporters, from their IAPA colleagues.

Le Nouvelliste is down to publishing twice a week, instead of daily, and has shrunk from a staff of 150 to 40. Le Matin now prints in the Dominican Republic and has cut salaries by 50 percent.

"In 35 seconds the news media lost more reporters than in the last 35 years," said Max Chauvet, editor of Le Nouvelliste, now down to publishing twice a week instead of daily. "The Haitian press has been crippled, crippled."


Associated Press writer Ed McCullough contributed to this report from Oranjestad, Aruba.


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