Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

Honduras: Narcotics Trade Accelerating Deforestation

By Luis Noé-Bustamente*

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (Honduras)

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. / UNESCO / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The rapid increase in deforestation in Honduras is being driven to a significant degree by the narcotics trade’s use of logging, land purchases, and cattle operations to launder drug profits.  Honduras has lost approximately 30 percent of its total forest cover since 2000, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Research indicates that the burgeoning drug trade connects businesses involved in illegal logging, timber sales, and the use of the cleared land for cattle ranching as a mechanism to launder drug trafficking money.  Criminal organizations insert illegal timber into the existing legal supply-chain, hiding illicit profits within legal revenue streams.

  • Drug traffickers’ access to capital gives them immense social, economic, and political influence in remote areas. Research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that they are able to conduct unusually large, remote, and fast forest-clearing in areas where they also collaborate with illegal loggers to grab land, enabling them to later merge both activities through cattle ranching operations.  Last year, a spatio-temporal study led by Dr. Steven Sesnie, an ecologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimated that as much as 25 percent of the annual forest loss in Honduras during the past decade can be linked to the drug trade.

Even though these emerging regional bosses are growing in influence and audacity, the Honduran government does not acknowledge the scope of their illicit activities – even in the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR), the country’s largest natural forest reserve (approximately 800,000 hectares).  In 1997, the Honduran Congress designated three different zones in the RPBR to provide some long-term protection of its sparsely inhabited core zone and to promote sustainable development in its more populated buffer and cultural zones.  Available information indicates, however, that enforcement has been very spotty, with only very rare action against only low-level violators.

  • Parts of the RPBR have experienced what forestry experts call alarming levels of cleared forest patches – even in areas with limited or no road access, where only illicit traders go. The RPBR’s secluded “cultural zone” is experiencing forest clearing at an estimated rate of more than 100 hectares per year (50 times more than in 2005).  Sensie’s report directly correlates this with increased drug trafficking throughout the country.  Indeed, there is a positive and substantial correlation between the country’s recorded percentage of GDP from drug trafficking (based on the same study) and the amount of irregular forest loss.

Under current conditions, Honduras has limited ability to address the institutional, socioeconomic, and criminal factors that exacerbate deforestation.  Unemployment, corruption, weak law enforcement, and violence create an environment that facilitates the illegal triad attacking Honduran forests – the narcotics trade, illegal logging, and land grabs.  The country has shown little political will to use what few legal tools it has to keep illegal groups from bribing and, failing to buy them, intimidating the law enforcement and government officials who give them harvesting or transport permits.  High unemployment and poverty in rural Honduras also create a strong incentive for local residents to cooperate with criminal organizations to obtain income and protection for their families – and severely dissuading them from with what few investigations might be undertaken in their areas.

  •  The increasingly obvious link with the narcotics trade, however, offers a way to squeeze illicit logging and livestock operations. Earlier this year, two months after U.S. prosecutors indicted Honduran Congressman Fredy Najera Montoya for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, Honduran courts finally – after years of allegations against Najera for “operational irregularities” – accused him of environmental crimes related to his illegal use of wood products and forging official documents.  Such actions, as well as a recent agreement to work with USAID to better enforce environmental laws, are good signs, but meaningful progress addressing deforestation must take into account the underlying causes: the country’s weak rule of law, lack of economic opportunity for most of its population, and the near-total lack of institutional presence in much of rural Honduras.

July 17, 2018

* Luis Noé-Bustamente is a CLALS research assistant.  He is on a team dedicated to a new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.

Colombia: Duque Preparing to Turn the Clock Back

By Christian Wlaschütz *

Uribe and Duque

Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe (left) and President-elect Iván Duque (right). / Centro Democrático (left), Casa de América (right) / Flickr, modified / Creative Commons

Colombian President-elect Iván Duque is not losing any time fulfilling campaign promises to take steps that will derail the peace process or at least put serious obstacles in its way, which will likely drive dissident FARC guerrillas back into the country’s already troubled rural areas.  Four weeks after his election and three weeks before his inauguration, Duque’s strong coalition in Congress has already passed legislation weakening the special peace courts (JEP) established for peace accord implantation.

  • Anyone who may have speculated that Duque would distance himself from his political godfather, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, as did outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos at his time, does not understand the president-elect’s dependence on Uribe. Santos had always belonged to Colombia’s elite and had his own standing, while Duque has no backing on his own.
  • As Duque assembles his first government, observers expect that he will tap into his campaign alliances – including individuals keenly opposed to the peace accords. Among them are Vivian Morales, a leading representative of the Christian churches, and Alejandro Ordóñez, a Catholic conservative and former Inspector General of the Republic (2009-17) who allied with Duque after losing to him in the primaries.  Morales and Ordóñez were among the main figures behind the negative campaign that led to popular rejection of the peace accord in late 2016, arguing that it promoted homosexuality and would weaken the traditional family.

The changing international context makes it easier for Duque to pursue his agenda.  When Santos assumed the presidency in 2010, he had strong support to pursue peace, led by U.S. President Obama and visibly demonstrated by the frequent presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  He immediately issued the “victims’ law,” admitted that Colombia had an armed conflict, and moderated the violent discourse of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.

  • Now the United States has shifted away from international cooperation and reduced its support for “soft” issues. President Trump has signaled priority to rigid counternarcotics and security policies, and not negotiated settlements.  Since Duque’s agenda includes a strong stance against the “Venezuelization of Colombia,” – referring to the emergence of a left-wing authoritarian government allied with Cuba and Venezuela – he is widely believed to be confident of Trump’s support for initiatives against FARC and other members of the Colombian opposition whom he claims are aided by alleged allies in the neighboring country.  The European Union, for its part, is currently completely immersed in internal affairs regarding migration and its own future.  In general, international enthusiasm seems to be suffering from fatigue –undermined by perceptions of Colombia popular rejection of the accords coupled with frustration over the high number of assassinations of social leaders.
  • The number of threats and assassinations of those who either support the political opposition or defend human rights and victims’ rights is simply breathtaking. Colombia’s weekly Semana reports that, in addition to killings related to land restitution, those related to political vendettas are increasing, concluding that the “ghost of political extermination” – similar to that of the Patriotic Union, a leftist party exterminated in the 1980s and 1990s – is back.

Duque’s efforts to weaken the peace process appear likely to advance – to the detriment of Colombian security.  Former FARC combatants will have little incentive to remain demobilized in cities and towns where they have little hope of inclusion in political and economic life, and are likely targets for harassment and assassination.  More likely, they will return to rural areas, which have already been experiencing a resurgence in criminality in the last year, and align themselves with active criminal groups there.  The insecurity and selective killings may lead Colombia towards times that it already seemed to have overcome.  The new president’s coalition of people with a strong resentment against the policies of the last eight years is not likely to take the steps necessary to lead Colombia into a different future, laying the groundwork for more crises, as the United States, EU, and the international community in general stands by.

July 12, 2018

* Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

U.S. Immigration Policy: New Obstacles to Asylum

By Jayesh Rathod*

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. / Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Customs and Border Patrol / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse established U.S. policy to grant asylum to certain victims of domestic violence increases the importance of – and challenges to – experts called on to demonstrate the credible threat applicants face if denied asylum and deported.  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 11 issued the opinion, which rescinded precedent that had paved the way for survivors of such violence to receive asylum.  More generally, the case – known as Matter of A-B- – creates additional legal roadblocks for asylum applicants who fear harm at the hands of private (non-state) actors, such as gangs and intimate partners.

  • Federal regulations permit the Attorney General to refer immigration cases to himself for decision, in order to revisit a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and issue a new opinion that creates binding nationwide precedent. Sessions has made frequent use of this special procedure, certifying four cases to himself since the beginning of the year.  Each of these cases is poised to limit the rights and protections afforded to asylum seekers and others facing removal proceedings.  For example, Sessions vacated the BIA’s decision in Matter of E-F-H-L-, which had held that asylum applicants are entitled to a full merits hearing, including the opportunity to present oral testimony. The vacatur opens the door to summary denials by Immigration Judges.

In Matter of A-B-, Sessions explicitly overruled the BIA’s 2014 decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, which provided a legal road map for asylum-seekers fleeing domestic and gang violence.  Under applicable case law, an applicant – such as a domestic violence survivor or target of gang violence – who fears persecution by a private actor may qualify for asylum, provided they can prove that their home country government is “unable or unwilling” to control the private actor.

  • Courts had previously expressed distinct views on how to interpret this standard, yet most embraced a plain-language reading of “unable or unwilling.” In Matter of A-B-, however, Sessions – in language that many legal scholars judge to be meandering and slightly inconsistent – suggests applicants must meet a higher standard and show “that the government condoned the private actions,” that those actions “can be attributed to the government,” or that the government “demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victims.”  Sessions opines that “[n]o country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity,” implying that deficiencies in law enforcement efforts will not necessarily translate into a successful asylum claim.

The unclear language in Matter of A-B- has left some wondering about the precise legal standard that is now in place.  What is certain, however, is that Matter of A-B- presents a smorgasbord of reasons for skeptical immigration judges to deny asylum claims from the Northern Triangle of Central America.  While a CLALS-hosted workshop underscored that country conditions evidence has always been critical to these cases, adjudicators will now pay even closer attention to country experts, and will demand more evidence regarding efforts by home country governments to control private violence, and of the relationship between those governments and private actors.

  • The new requirements stack the deck against asylum-seekers. The governments in the Northern Triangle of Central America – with Washington’s strong financial and political support – have long argued they’re making efforts to curb gang violence.  Before Matter of A-B-, the “unable or unwilling” standard allowed asylum claims to succeed while permitting these governments to save face under the theory that they were trying, albeit imperfectly, to control violent private actors.  By demanding even more unfavorable evidence regarding these home country governments, Matter of A-B- sets up a likely conflict between the legal standard for asylum and the preferred messaging of those governments and the Trump administration.  Facing an array of entrenched interests, it will be difficult for country experts to show that governments commit or condone the violence against asylum-seekers or that authorities are “completely helpless” to protect victims.

July 10, 2018

* Jayesh Rathod is a professor at the Washington College of Law and founding director of the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.

U.S.-Latin America: “Zero Tolerance” Makes Zero Progress

By Ernesto Castañeda *

Children and adults stand in a line

Central American migrant children and their parents. / Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC / Wikimedia

U.S. President Donald Trump’s family separation policies, despite his June 20 executive action ending them, will have long-term negative consequences and will do nothing to stem the flow of migrants into the United States.

  • Hundreds of families remain separated. Families are detained indefinitely for applying for asylum or crossing into the United States.  Political outrage in the United States may be new, but these policies are not.  Millions of families have been separated across U.S. borders for many years.  After growing up without their parents, children who did not originally accompany migrating parents often attempt to reunify with them in the United States, resulting in the increase of unaccompanied minors that we have seen since 2014 and the surge in violence in Central America.
  • The Trump Administration’s policies fail to address the underlying causes of migration – violence, impunity, corruption, and poverty in sending countries and high U.S. demand for low-cost workers – which show no sign of abating. Many Mexicans and Central Americans are fleeing kidnappings, extortions, and death threats as they explain during credible-threat interviews that give them valid claims for asylum.  U.S.-backed militarized responses to drug trafficking have produced much of the violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, generating asylum-seekers.  Beyond the traditional economic and social reasons, many recent immigrants are escaping violence, as they did during the Mexican Revolution and the political violence in Central America in the 1980s.

Family separation and the detention of unaccompanied minors in shelters are not new practices either.  What was new in recent months was the separation of families that come to the United States seeking asylum.

  • These forced separations cause the children lifelong trauma. The American Psychiatric Association recently stated that “the evidence is clear that this level of trauma also results in serious medical and health consequences for these children and their caregivers.”  Separation inflicts trauma on adults too; parents suffer from being away from their children due to their decision to migrate.

The logic behind “zero tolerance” is to discourage migration by making conditions as miserable as possible for intending migrants – building psychological walls as well as the physical wall that Trump has pledged to build along the border with Mexico.  By ignoring the underlying causes of these movements of people, this approach is not only cruel but unlikely to be successful.  The concern is also misplaced, despite the increasing visibility of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, as border apprehensions show a steep downward trend.

  •  The U.S. Congress has so far rejected solutions to the issue of family separation, such as creating larger guest worker programs, strengthening asylum courts, passing the DREAM Act, and demilitarizing responses to drug trafficking. Until the underlying causes of migration are addressed, Washington will be squandering its money prosecuting and causing lasting trauma for innocent children and parents.  Contrary to Trump’s claim that immigrants hurt U.S. culture, my research shows that immigrants are skillful at integrating into American life.  New pathways for legal immigration are the only way ahead to reduce undocumented migration.

 July 3, 2018

 * Ernesto Castañeda is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University and author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford, 2018).