By Carmen Gomez-Cotta
CJFE volunteer Carmen Gomez-Cotta recently had the opportunity to meet Uruguayan journalist José Peralta, our 2013-14 Journalism Fellow. José has been in Canada since late August, and Carmen talked with José about his experiences thus far.
Note: This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated into English.
How do you feel about being selected for this Fellowship?
Being selected for this fellowship is an honour and a source of pride. It’s always hard for Latin American journalists to gain any kind of recognition in North America, so this is really a challenge. I hope to be up to the task of what this award and scholarship represents. I´m very excited.
You’re from Uruguay, but you have also studied in Spain and now you’re living in Canada. What are some of the differences and similarities between the press in Canada, Latin America (generally speaking) and Spain?
The biggest difference is that Latin American journalism is extremely politicized, which means that 90% of what you’re reading in a newspaper is politics. No matter what section you’re reading, it’s always one minister or the other talking about their policy. Media in Spain and Canada has a political aspect to it, but it is not nearly as pronounced as in Latin America.
Like good media around the world, all three have a common denominator: the search for the truth above anything else. You can recognize a healthy press when you appreciate this tendency, no matter if it´s Uruguayan, Spanish or Canadian. I’m not talking about objectivity; I’m talking about the search for truth. Objectivity is a utopia. I don´t believe there is such a thing as media objectivity, because the very process of selecting which news to publish is a subjective choice – even if it’s just a question of space constraints. Nevertheless, I believe you can do this while still seeking truth and acting as a kind of watchdog for big power in favour of society.
Focusing just on your home country, Uruguay, what is the current state of press freedom and freedom of expression? Does censorship exist? Are there many exiled journalists?
Nowadays there aren’t many exiled journalists, but we have had many. Uruguay has lived through four dictatorships since 1830, the last was from 1973-84, and each one has left deep scars that are still felt today. During this period we had many exiled journalists. Some of them were forced into exile, others fled for security reasons, and there were also many media outlets censored or closed down. Búsqueda, the newspaper I currently work for, was censored during the last dictatorship for the first time in its 40-year history.
Currently, some kind of censorship may exist, but it’s more likely to be for economical reasons (we can’t publish something because it might upset our advertisers). However, I think that exists everywhere around the world. Besides this, the state of press and freedom expression in Uruguay is better than many of our neighbours, such as Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, or Cuba. In Uruguay, journalists are not killed or threatened, we have decriminalized defamation and libel so that you can no longer be imprisoned for those charges, we set up an Access to Information Law and we created an Ethical Code. In both Uruguay and Chile you can find media spanning the political spectrum, ranging from the most extreme left to the most conservative right wing. This differs from Brazil, for example, which is currently experiencing severe setbacks in terms of press freedom. There journalists have been recently killed and there are media outlets being prosecuted. Argentina is also currently experiencing significant threats to free expression, with some printing houses being blocked to prevent publication.
Is there any difference between radio, TV and print media in Uruguay?
Yes, there is. Generally, print media is the biggest news generator. The system works in a cycle in this way: print media are the first source to publish news. Morning radio programs then echo the news (reading the newspapers to the public), and at noon television broadcasters rework this news, talking to people and presenting it visually. Usually, at night, print media collect the repercussions of the news (if there are any) and the circle starts again. Generally, radio and television don’t get into much trouble.
In May 2013, Uruguay’s government submitted a bill to parliament for the new Audiovisual Communication Services Law. IFEX member organizations Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública and Reporters Without Borders have reviewed the bill and are cautiously optimistic that it will help to strengthen the media landscape in your country. What do you think? Do you believe this law will be passed? Would it be effective?
Yes, I agree and I think this law is relevant to the country. But it needs some improvements. This law has two parts. The first one, related to the media business – frequencies, waves democratization process, digital waves and channels habilitation – I think is fine. The second part – related to the content, what can take place in a channel or some definitions – directly affects the right to freedom of expression. For instance, the bill uses terms like segregationist, discriminatory or sexist, which need to be defined in advance. But who can say what is discriminatory and what is not? I believe there needs to be some clarification before approving the law, otherwise it could threaten freedom of expression in the country.
Even if the law is approved, we will still have to wait and see how much it is put into action.
What do your next eight months as a Journalism Fellow look like? What are your plans for the future?
I’m really happy and excited and all I want is to focus on my studies.
Right now I am focused on digital journalism and data journalism; that’s why I’m taking courses regarding web design and programming, all regarding social media. That is the direction our profession is moving towards nowadays. This is a process and an unforgettable experience, so I want to learn as much as possible.
In your view, why is this kind of fellowship initiative (between Scotiabank, CJFE and Massey College) important?
This kind of fellowship is extremely important, especially to Latin American journalists. This kind of fellowship allows us to get into a world that, in other ways, would be far away, almost impossible to us. This is a very good scholarship. It takes care of everything for you during your residency – meals, money and accommodation – so you can just focus on what really matters: studying, researching and writing. Otherwise, Latin Americans don’t have many chances to see and experience how North American media works. And certainly not to study in one of the best universities, U of T!
The Scotiabank/CJFE Journalism Fellowship is a program made possible through the generous support of Scotiabank. It gives seasoned journalists from South America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, the opportunity to complete two semesters of study at Massey College, at the University of Toronto.