It’s no secret that Trumpism lives on in Latin America, where leaders with authoritarian tendencies, on both the left and the right, have been borrowing from Trump’s populist playbook — from embracing his most radical and toxic strategies to discredit elections to habitually blasting critics on Twitter.
But perhaps nowhere is Trump’s poisonous impact more evident than in global leaders’ renewed war against the news media. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador are just three examples of such dynamics in Latin America. All three have constantly used the term “fake news” and “fifi,” Mexican slang that means elitist, to refer to the press. With Joe Biden in the White House, the United States must step back into its traditional role defending the free press in the hemisphere.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro regularly attacks and humiliates journalists. Actual acts of aggression against members of the press have increased under his presidency. It all results in a generalized sentiment of hate and distrust toward media outlets. The far-right leader, elected in 2018 as an outsider who modeled himself after Trump, was a COVID-19 denier and often blamed the media for the panic over the coronavirus. That was before he contracted the virus. Then things got real: Bolsonaro has been using an old oppressive law to launch criminal probes of citizens, including journalists, who have criticized his administration’s dismal response to the pandemic.
Bukele, for his part, has weaponized social media to undermine unfavorable and critical independent journalism, just as Trump did. Media reports have said the young president of El Salvador wants to become “Latin America’s first millennial dictator.” He displays worrying antidemocratic attitudes, as when his administration blocked El Faro and Revista Factum — two of the country’s best-regarded investigative news outlets — from attending presidential press conferences. More recently, Bukele announced El Faro was under investigation for money laundering, without offering evidence. The string of attacks even prompted members of the US Congress to write a letter to Bukele expressing their alarm.
In Mexico, which remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, the leftist president has gone after autonomous watchdog organizations — such as the Institute for Access to Information and the Federal Commission for Economic Competition, an anti-monopoly oversight agency — that have long been consulted by news reporters to expand their investigative work and scrutinize government operations and potential corruption. Recently, López Obrador, also known as AMLO for his acronym in Spanish, forcefully decried Twitter’s well-deserved ban of Trump, calling it censorship, and said he’d look into curbing social media companies’ power.
Biden should see deteriorating conditions in these countries as an opportunity to reassume America’s role as international leader in press freedoms. The Committee to Protect Journalists has recommended that Biden deliver a major speech on global press freedom and that he appoint a special presidential envoy who would report to the secretary of state and be empowered to speak out about international press freedom violations.
To emphasize the need to improve freedom of the press, Biden can also direct the US State Department to use high-level pressure on these Latin American governments — and possibly even use foreign aid or public shaming, according to CPJ experts.
“Bukele is really image-conscious, so this is something that will matter to him,” said Natalie Southwick, the South and Central America program coordinator at the organization. More specifically, in Mexico, the Biden administration should prioritize strengthening institutions created to protect reporters and that are in danger of being underfunded or cut by Mexican legislators.
Vilification of the media has finally abated in the White House with a president who fully respects a free press’s role, no matter where the chips fall for his administration. Yet the sad reality is that a former American president helped normalize attacks on the press as a governing strategy and set the stage for the atmosphere in Latin America today. Biden should be actively and vocally endorsing the importance of an unfettered and unintimidated press as a fundamental pillar of democracy — because it’s the right thing to do, and because the United States has a responsibility to help repair the damage it caused under the past administration.
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