The first printing press of the Americas began operating in 1539 in Mexico but it was not until 180 years later that the region would have its first regular newspaper, the Gaceta de México. Colonial journalism in the Americas was largely influenced by both the Church and the Crown, but to varying degrees depending on how isolated the town or city was. Throughout the colonial period, and especially in its latter stages, the press was crucial to the development of new Latin American nations by encouraging unity and mutual support — a phenomenon not too different from the press’ role in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War.
However, although there are some similarities in the cultures and practices of journalism in Latin America, the development of those cultures and practices diverged in important ways. Even today, scholars routinely find significant country-level differences. For example, Cuba still operates largely under a state-media system where many journalists serve as mouthpieces for government policy. In Mexico, there is ample private ownership of media companies but such ownership is also highly concentrated, with a journalism tradition that is largely loyal to ruling parties. And, in Chile, journalists have a long history of adhering to interventionist journalistic values, thereby pointedly challenging public elites.
Many Latin American nations have histories of military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, have experienced coup d’états, and have witnessed popular rebellions against political corruption. Put another way, journalists in Latin America have historically operated under politically volatile conditions — though much of the region is currently operating under a relatively peaceful and democratic period.
That volatility has made it difficult to sustain a tradition of public media in Latin America. Instead, the relatively few public media tends to be highly sympathetic to the government and, in many cases, are more akin to state-owned media than state-supported public service broadcasters. This is especially true in the case of television. The time frame of the medium’s development in the region coincided with the proliferation of authoritarian regimes, which in turn led to the instrumentalization of television to advance nation-building strategies. Consequently, public media in Latin America routinely receive lower ratings than some commercial counterparts and are often perceived as lacking in credibility.
Private ownership of media in Latin America is also frequently highly concentrated and closely tied to political leaders. Similar to their southern European counterparts, many Latin American newspapers were family-owned, often by families with close ties to political leadership. In Colombia, for example, it was very common for a president to have some journalism background. Although officially prohibited by law, it is not uncommon for Colombian members of Congress to hold television or radio licenses. More broadly, politicians throughout the region are also either on boards of directors or are partners in media companies. As such, Latin America has historically had high levels of clientelism, where journalists write stories for the benefit of sources or owners rather than for the civic good.
Although the region saw the development of important press freedoms in the 1980s and early 1990s, many of those gains have been curtailed since then. Today, press freedoms remain limited in many parts of Latin America. Press censorship — and especially self-censorship — is rising and many elected leaders have solidified their control over legislative and judicial systems. This concentration of power has allowed political elites, and business leaders who work with government officials, to go after independent journalists and journalistic outlets. Some of the worst offenders in this regard are Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. In contrast, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Suriname have relatively free media systems — in fact, all four were ranked higher than the United States by Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2021.
International organizations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, have played a major role in promoting independent journalism in the region. Those entities have successfully struck down legislation and judicial decisions restricting free speech, which in turn have had far-reaching consequences. For example, the Inter-American Court overturned Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa’s conviction of criminal defamation for reporting on alleged acts of corruption. It also ordered Peru to restore a Peruvian television station owner’s rights after it aired reports on corruption and human rights abuses. Notably, there are several instances where Latin American countries have complied with these and other orders and further gone on to reform some of their domestic laws. In short, external organizations have proven crucial to protecting journalists and citizens’ access to information in the region.
Latin America is home to some of the world’s most dangerous places for practicing journalism. In particular, Mexico routinely ranks as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists anywhere in the world. A lack of impunity allows criminal gangs, cartels, and corrupt officials to silence critics. Organized crime is particularly violent in places like Veracruz, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. Journalists who cover sensitive subjects, and investigative journalists in particular, are routinely harassed and sometimes killed in gruesome ways in order to send messages.
Mexico is not alone, though. In May of 2017 alone, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that more than 100 journalists and media workers were threatened, harassed, detained, or attacked while covering protests in Venezuela. That number increased over the following months, during which hundreds of incidents of violence and intimidation of journalists were recorded. While state security forces and armed, pro-government civilian groups were responsible for most of the incidents, anti-government protesters also targeted journalists by robbing them and accusing them of being government sympathizers. Similar issues arose during the Venezuelan presidential crisis in 2019 and 2020.
More broadly, journalists in the region still struggle with structural issues ranging from low pay to corruption in the newsroom to varying levels of professional standards. Several Latin American countries have professional associations for journalists (in which membership is voluntary) or trade unions (in which membership is sometimes required for more desirable jobs). Such bodies have helped instill greater professional values and stronger ethical codes for journalists. In particular, those groups — together with international organizations — have helped to develop a stronger practice of investigative journalism in order to combat corruption. As such, there now more journalistic partnerships within and across countries in order to pool resources for far-reaching, in-depth investigations. While these developments have also helped promote a more objective approach to journalism, journalists in many Latin American countries still identify closely with a more interpretive approach that favors the use of pointed language and editorializing.
Radio and television are still the primary vehicles for news in most of Latin America. Radio, in particular, remains its most inclusive medium as it is able to reach remote areas that still lack digital connectivity. For example, Bolivia has more than 800 radio stations in the country and, in Peru, radio remains the most commonly owned piece of media equipment in the country. As in Africa, community radio has proven to be a crucial counterweight to state-sponsored media and its highly concentrated private media, due in large part to its low barrier to entry. This is especially true for indigenous populations, rural communities, and the urban poor, whose perspectives are often missing in more mainstream media.
However, as digital infrastructures have improved, Latin America has also become a hub for innovative digital journalism. For example, Argentina’s largest newspapers, Clarín and La Nación, have created online teams that routinely win international awards for their digital storytelling and data journalism. Additionally, a remarkable 94% of Latin American Internet users use some form of social media, which has opened up a range of opportunities for digitally oriented journalists and for participatory forms of journalism. At the same time, the prevalence of social media has also enabled misinformation and disinformation to spread rapidly during incidents in different Latin American countries. Those information challenges are made even more acute due to the existing low trust in news media. However, it is important to note that access to the internet (and high-speed internet in particular) remains highly uneven throughout much of Latin America.
Latin American journalism has developed against a backdrop of authoritarian rule and state control. In many countries, public media and highly concentrated private media generally align with the ruling parties.
Violence against journalists is not uncommon in Latin American countries, and especially in Mexico’s recent history. The resulting climate of fear promotes self-censorship, which also coincides with overt censorship in some countries.
Radio and television are the primary vehicles for news in much of Latin America, but improving digital infrastructures are also enabling new forms of journalism.