Q&A with Vanessa I. Garnica
IPI’s new press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean
Originally from the city of Valencia, Venezuela, Vanessa earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies from the University of South Florida in 2004 with a minor in mass communications.
Over the past 10 years, Vanessa has lived in South East Asia and has worked as a journalist for English and Spanish language publications in both North and Central America, respectively.
While living in the state of Georgia (U.S.), Vanessa reported on illegal immigration raids carried out in the southern part of the state, and the creation of a workers’ union consisting of undocumented workers who faced discrimination on a daily basis.
As a reporter in Costa Rica, Vanessa covered international trade agreements, national emergencies, such as two major earthquakes, and the 2009 H1N1 Influenza outbreak. She also covered issues affecting the agricultural sector throughout the country.
At IPI, Vanessa monitors press freedom violations and media developments in Latin America and the Caribbean and coordinates IPI's activities in the region.
The newest member of the IPI team spoke to us about the challenges facing journalists in Latin America, how a Costa Rica earthquake shook her to the core and the pursuit of press freedom.
IPI: You have been working as a journalist for many years. Joining the IPI press freedom team, your focus will be on advocacy. What made you develop an interest in press freedom and decide to move from journalism to advocacy?
Vanessa I. Garnica (VIG): Well, I have always been interested in press freedom issues even as a young college student working for the independently-run student publication, the Oracle. I remembered reading about the Vanessa Leggett case back in the early 2000’s when she was sent to jail for not giving up her notes and ultimately her sources regarding a particular murder investigation.
IPI: What is the greatest challenge you have encountered working as a journalist in Latin America?
VIG: There are a number of challenges in the region. There are instances of censorship by certain governments in Latin America, the passage of legislation restricting press freedom, in addition to libel laws, such as in Ecuador, which impede the journalist’s ability to tell a story, to cover an issue without the fear of being reprimanded.
IPI: What do you think IPI can and should do to address this challenge?
VIG: We can bring international attention by organising campaigns that detail the potential effects that a particular case could have on press freedom or the free flow of information for reporters in that country. Also, by coordinating missions to specific countries, we can meet local journalists and see first-hand how certain laws have hindered their ability to cover issues of public interest freely, at the same time, we can meet with government officials and explain the ramifications that a certain legislation or existing law could have on freedom of the press in their country.
IPI: The Caribbean is seen as a haven for surfing, playing on the beach, and colourful drinks with umbrellas. But what people don’t know is that there are serious press freedom challenges on most island nations. Can you elaborate on that?
VIG: Although IPI has been instrumental in the abolishment of criminal libel laws in some Caribbean nations, such as Jamaica and Grenada, there are other countries in the region that still have criminal defamation laws that could obstruct the ability of journalists to do their work freely.
There is still a lot of ground to cover in the Caribbean regarding criminal defamation laws, media ethics, access to information and transparency, and we are committed to bringing awareness to these and other issues in this region.
Direct censorship by the government is also problematic, in particular in Cuba, and violence against journalists in Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago is disturbing.
IPI: As a journalist, what was the most difficult story you ever covered and what made it so difficult?
VIG: It would probably have to be interviewing people who were displaced by the 2009 earthquake in Cinchona, Costa Rica. Complete families were staying in tents out under the freezing rain along this mountainous region. While interviewing survivors, I remember being soaked through-and-through, my rubber boots covered in mud, and my hand holding the recorder - shaking due to the sub zero temperatures. Yet the people in the makeshift camps were resilient, regardless of their situation. This trip put it all in perspective for me. I try to not complain too much after that experience.
IPI: How has the life of the average journalist today in The Americas changed from 10 years ago and what are the biggest challenges they face now?
VIG: The most tangible change has been the development of social media platforms, like Twitter, Facebook and Tumbler, just to name a few. Journalists can share their work with an infinite number of readers with just a click of a bottom. As a result, journalism has become a very competitive craft concerning the speed under which journalists ‘must’ publish their work in order to stay relevant with today’s growing demands. Presently, writers also have a more constant relationship with their readers and tend to be more in tune with what their audience wants than ever before.
IPI: Some 56 percent of people who live in The Americas are on the Internet. Most of those users are from North America (52 percent). Of the users in The Americas, South America has the second largest number of users with 36 percent; 9.7 percent in Central America; and 2.6 percent of users in the Americas come from the Caribbean.
What are the benefits of using the Internet to report for journalists practicing in Latin/Central America and the Caribbean? What are the pitfalls?
VIG: A benefit of using the Internet as a journalist today is the vast amount of information that we have access to on an instant’s notice. What might have taken our colleagues days or weeks to find 15 or 20 years ago, we can now find in a few seconds. Just like in other regions in the world, there is a lot of bureaucracy when requesting information or interviews from government agencies in Latin America. Being able to use the Internet to find sources, other reporters covering the same topic, or experts on the subject at hand is definitively an advantage.
Conversely, some of the disadvantages, of course, would be the veracity of the information we can find online. Even reputable publications have at some point retracted stories due to inaccurate information. As a result, journalists have to be very careful with the information they find on the Web.