By Holly K. Doyle

The national flag of Uruguay, adopted July 11, 1830 upon independence.

The national flag of Uruguay, adopted July 11, 1830 upon independence.

Uruguay is among the top contenders for free speech and free press rights in the world. The 2014 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranks Uruguay 26th out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of information. Freedom House also scores Uruguay as among the best and freest countries in terms of its legal, political, and economic environments. It must be noted that Uruguay was not always this free and that these scores indicate significant improvements in the aftermath of the military dictatorship.

Historical Background

Nestled in between Argentina and Brazil is Uruguay, a small South American country with a population of about 3,500,000 people. Colonial powers of both Spain and Portugal played a significant part in shaping the country up until Uruguay secured its independence in the early 19th century. The country soon found itself in the throes of conflict, as there were two strong political factions (the land-owning Blancos and the urban Colorados) vying for leadership of Uruguay. An economic depression contributed to the reemergence of political and social unrest in the 1960s, and this period of instability resulted in the infamous military dictatorship in 1973. Uruguay returned to civilian leadership in 1985, and a new, left-leaning party called the Broad Front Coalition gained popularity in 2004. No longer do the citizens of Uruguay have only the Blancos and the Colorados to choose from. Jose Mujica, a member of the Broad Front coalition and a prominent guerilla fighter during the military regime, won the presidential election in 2009. Mujica was, and is, a thoroughly remarkable leader as he donated 90 percent of his salary to charity and refused to reside in the presidential palace during his term (Davies). Current President Tabare Vazquez, also of the Broad Front party, succeeded Mujica in 2014 after being elected by popular vote (Country Watch).

As president of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, Vazquez holds the titles of chief of state and head of government. Also located within the executive branch is the Council of Ministers, all of whom are cabinet members appointed by the president. These 12 members run the executive department though the authority of the office belongs to the president. Uruguay has a bicameral general assembly as part of the legislative branch, and its purpose is to pass laws and ensure justice. The general assembly is comprised of 30 senators and 99 representatives all elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the judiciary, and justices are nominated by the president and elected by the General Assembly for ten-year terms (Country Watch).

Because Spain and Portugal held great influence during the earliest years of the region’s colonial history, most Uruguayans are descendants of Spanish and Italian settlers. The indigenous population, as in most colonized countries, is not very large. Spanish is the official language of Uruguay, but because Argentina and Brazil are such close neighbors, certain dialects of Porturon and Brazilero are also commonly spoken. Most Uruguayans are Roman Catholic, but there is a significant Protestant and Jewish population as well. Nearly 30 percent of Uruguayans do not ascribe to a particular faith, and the separation of church and state is officially recognized. Uruguay is notable for its high literacy rate (98 percent of the population over the age of 15 is literate), its large urban middle class, and fairly even distribution of income. Also impressive is the fact that everyone in the country has access to clean drinking water, as per a constitutional amendment (Country Watch).

According to Freedom House, Uruguay ranks as one of the freest countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Uruguay is considered to be free with regard to political rights because they have a fair, open, and competitive electoral process, and levels of corruption are low in comparison to other South American countries. On the criteria of transparency, Uruguay is ranked 19th out of 177 countries and territories; this ranking is largely due to the country’s Transparency Law, which holds elected officials accountable by criminalizing a wide range of abuses of power. Uruguay also scores very well regarding civil liberties as citizens are guaranteed the freedoms of expression, press, assembly, and religion. Despite these liberties, minority groups still face widespread discrimination. Women earn salaries that are two-thirds of their male counterpart’s and occupy only 12 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives and 13 percent in the Senate. The Afro-Uruguayan minority is subject to economic and social inequalities, and is underrepresented in government. However, Uruguay is often cited (with good reason) as the most liberal country in South America. In late 2013, former President Mujica decriminalized the production and distribution of marijuana to help eliminate the presence of drug gangs. Same-sex civil unions were approved by parliament in 2007, abortion (for any reason) during the first trimester was made legal in 2012, and gay marriage was passed in 2013 (Freedom House).

Free Speech

Though currently thought of as the most progressive South American country, Uruguay underwent more than its fair share of human rights violations during the civilian-military dictatorship that took control of the government in the early 1970s. Years of social, political, and economic instability led to a rapid change from democracy to dictatorship in 1968 as authoritarian leaders enacted increasingly repressive policies. Pacheco Areco served as president from 1966 to 1971, and during his time in office he declared a state of siege, implemented prompt security measures to inhibit strikes and counter oppositional forces, and enforced a rigorous program for economic stabilization. All of these measures abandoned the democratic principles Uruguay once championed. No more was Uruguay’s “unique and outstanding experience with liberal and participatory democracy” (Lessa 31). The conflict worsened as time passed and new, more repressive politicians came to power. Juan María Bordaberry succeeded Areco as president in 1971, and began increasing military power over everyday operations. On June 21, 1973, military takeover became solidified when President Bordaberry spearheaded the coup d’état and disbanded Parliament (Lessa 31-47).

The military assumed control of all methods of communication resulting in complete censorship. President Bordaberry issued an executive order that specifically targeted speech that was critical of the state. For example, “notices or commentaries that reflected negatively on the prestige of the executive or of the armed forces” were forbidden by the decree (Hampsten 38). Furthermore, Bordaberry criticized Parliament for abandoning its constitutional duties, especially when it came to combating sedition. Repression became widespread, affecting armed guerilla organizations and citizens participating in peaceful protests alike. Nearly 3,700 Uruguayan citizens were imprisoned under the authoritarian regime, and eighteen for every 10,000 Uruguayans were arrested. Taking into consideration those that were arrested and not prosecuted, the number rises to thirty-one for every 10,000 inhabitants, meaning that Uruguay had “the greatest number of political prisoners in relation to its population” (Hampsten 66).

The dictatorship targeted everyone that posed a possible threat to the regime. Uruguayans could be considered a threat for any reason, whether one simply disagreed with the actions of the dictatorship, or if one led an anti-dictatorship guerilla organization. Raúl Sendic was targeted by the administration for falling under the latter category, as he was the most prominent leader of the left-wing urban guerilla group, the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement. Sendic was arrested by the armed forces on Aug. 31, 1972 and he expected to be executed immediately. Instead, Sendic became one of nine hostages, including former president Jose Mujica, who were imprisoned and tortured for twelve years. Sendic was told by a marine officer that the military had not ordered his execution because they were not going to turn him into a martyr and create a second Che Guevara. (Hampsten 64-65)

The ability of Uruguayans to speak out against the regime via protest was also severely curtailed during the dictatorship’s reign. On June 27, 1973, the National Workers’ Union conducted a sizeable general strike in an effort to halt all labor activity. For fifteen days workers from every profession expressed their ire with the administration and its abandonment of Uruguay’s democratic traditions. The military put an end to the strike by forcibly removing the participants from their workplaces. Three days later, the government announced they had dismantled the National Workers’ Union, claiming “the attitude adopted by members of the National Workers’ Union to promote and advocate violence…shows a premeditated design to violate the law and constitutes a challenge to the legitimate power by preventing it from exercising its responsibilities…” (Hampsten 39). Union leaders were indicted on crimes of rebellion and sedition, among other charges.  However, the government’s reaction to the strike did not dissuade protestors from coming back in full force in the capital of Montevideo on July 9. The protest was underway for only a few hours when the military violently put an end to the demonstration and arrested numerous participants. Several organizations collaborated to release a statement calling for the resignation of President Bordaberry and for the return of democracy. The administration asserted that the coup had the unspoken support of the majority of Uruguayans, but the efforts of numerous groups like the National Workers’ Union and Frente Amplio (the Broad Front party) proved otherwise. Despite their resistance, the government effectively disbanded unions and other labor organization by arresting members and leaders for “‘assisting in subversion’ or merely participating in union activity” (Hampsten 41).

Seeking the same supervision they had obtained over political groups and labor organizations, the military government now targeted education at all levels. The military narrowed in on universities as they were thought to be “strongholds of subversive ideologies” (Lessa 37). Before the coup, universities were autonomous entities with which the government did not directly interfere (Hampsten 41-42). After the coup, all of the school officials, who had been elected by staff and students, were replaced with military appointees. Additionally, the military imposed a very specific curriculum and controlled the content taught to students by censoring textbooks. New courses were created that promoted traditional values and allegiance to the dictatorship. Hundreds of students and teachers were made to disappear while all political activities on campus were forbidden (Lessa 37). A number of university departments, like sociology, were shut down altogether because the government deemed them inherently subversive (Patterson 22). At the early levels of education, the government changed the curriculum to include lessons that would begin to train a new generation of students devoted to the regime (Hampsten 42). It is clear that the military dictatorship was incredibly strategic in the efforts to silence and mold Uruguayans of all ages. Ultimately, the military attempted to stifle critical thinking and those that disobeyed were subject to imprisonment, torture, and even death.

As for current free speech issues, in 2009, the general assembly sanctioned a bill that repealed criminal punishments for defamation on matters of public importance involving governmental officials. Taking a page from the United States’ book, the legislation implemented an actual malice standard to determine liability in such defamation cases. As free speech and free press are closely related, this bill was a victory for journalists who no longer had to worry if they would be charged with defamation for being critical of a public official (“CPJ Hails Approval of Press Law by Uruguayan Congress”). Unfortunately, the defamation issue remains unresolved as President Vazquez never signed the bill into law. Citizens and reporters alike may still be prosecuted. (Freedom House).

Free Press

Because of Uruguay’s very high literacy rate, the country also ranked at the top of newspaper circulation worldwide (Kaufman 46). However, Uruguay has never had an independent press that would allow for papers of all ideologies to flourish. Most papers are affiliated with a particular party and tend to publish stories that adhere only to that party’s ideology. During the regime, freedom of press was curtailed even more as newspapers that favored the regime were the only ones that survived. The year 1968 marked the beginning of partial censorship of the press, and just one year later, a decree was put forth banning the publication of dissident content. Various dailies like El Debate and El Popular were periodically suspended as punishment, while staunchly socialist papers like El Sol and Epoca were shut down without hope of operating again. Newspapers had to be very careful about publishing anything that could be interpreted as offensive to the administration. One paper, Marcha, “ironically used the headline ‘This is not dictatorship’ to publish the list of restrictions declared by the government” (Kaufman 47). Eventually all oppositional periodicals were eliminated, allowing for right-wing newspapers to command the marketplace of ideas. The government soon took over radio and television stations recognizing another opportunity for the regime to assert its ideas among the population (Kaufman 46-49).

Investigative journalism faced rigorous repression during the civic-military dictatorship. About thirty-one journalists were killed or made to disappear during the regime’s reign; Julio Castro, a journalist and labor activist, is counted among those fatalities. In March 2013, Juan Ricardo Zabala, a police officer during the dictatorship, “was tried on charges that he acted as an accomplice in the military-ordered murder of Castro” (Freedom House). Zabala kidnapped Castro in 1977 and reported that the decision to execute Castro was made after Castro’s health rapidly deteriorated from the torture he endured. Castro’s remains were unearthed in 2011 on military property, prompting former president Jose Mujica to annul the amnesty law that prevented human rights violators, like Zabala, from being held accountable for their actions. If convicted, Zabala would serve anywhere between 15 and 30 years in prison (Freedom House).

The practice of investigative journalism has yet to recover from the wounds it sustained during the military dictatorship, and it is therefore not a well-developed field of journalism (Peralta). Still today, the military will sometimes threaten investigative journalists researching the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s and the human rights abuses suffered under that regime. Investigative journalist Eduardo Preve, for example, had confidential military documents stolen from him in Mar. 2006. Preve believed the military to be responsible because the documents implicated the military in offering protection to human rights abusers during the dictatorship (Karlekar and Marchant, 319). In 2011, Roger Rodríguez, an investigative journalist specializing in the military dictatorship, was victim to an Internet assault conducted by a far-right wing organization sympathetic to the goal of the regime (“Internet Assault on Investigative Journalist”).

In May 2013, a Broadcasting Communication Services Law (LCSA) put forth by the Uruguayan government was approved by the chamber of deputies and is awaiting approval by the senate. The law would increase transparency by evenly distributing broadcast frequencies between media sources at the state, private, and public levels. The bill has been revised a number of times as the legislature and members of the public have collaborated. Two major changes have been implemented in the revision process, both of them concerning censorship. The original draft included a provision for banning all hateful speech, but due to concerns that this could be construed as prior censorship, the chamber of deputies rewrote the language more narrowly and settled on banning content that “condoned or incited violence.” A second provision of the original draft desired to protect young Uruguayans from violent content, but because this too could be interpreted as prior censorship the legislature decided to err on the side of free speech and protect news content and general interest information (“Call for Continuing Transparency and Dialogue in Media Law’s Passage”).

Critical Comparison

From these examples it is clear that Uruguay is matched relatively evenly with the United States on the issues of sedition, hate speech, and defamation. Both countries have a history of censoring citizens and journalists, and both have reformed laws so as to expand the freedoms of speech and press. To begin, Uruguay punished all speech that was perceived as seditious during the military regime through imprisonment at best, and torture and death at worst. Since the end of the dictatorship, Uruguay has made significant strides by allowing citizens and journalists to voice their criticisms of the current government. The environment for journalists today is very safe and the field is highly successful, earning Uruguay a press freedom ranking of 26th out of 180 countries, whereas the United States scores 46th out of 180 (“2015 World Press Freedom Index”).

In the U.S., there has never been a case in which a journalist or any other member of the population has been prosecuted for receiving and writing about classified information. There has never been a time in recent history in which a journalist published something that was classified and the government declared it an act of sedition. In Uruguay, during the dictatorship, the press was completely under the thumb of the government and any attempt at investigative journalism was quashed and labeled a seditious act. It is not within the power of the U.S. government to punish an average citizen or journalist for speaking about classified information as long as the person did not break any laws in obtaining the truthful, but classified, information. Bartnicki v. Vopper established this practice in 2001. This case was heard after a private phone call between a teachers’ union president and a chief union negotiator was intercepted by an unidentified party. They were discussing collective-bargaining actions, and when an official proposal was submitted, a local radio state played the audio recording of the intercepted conversation. Though this instance was not an issue of national security, it raised important questions about publishing information that was intercepted illegally, and if this were to constitute espionage in some situations. The ruling held that such information could be published as long as the author did not participate in illegal activities in an effort to obtain the information (Bartnicki v. Vopper).

The U.S. does protect hate speech as long as such speech is not directed at inciting, or would be likely to incite, imminent lawless action. Brandenburg v. Ohio is the ruling that set forth the U.S.’s attitude towards hate speech. Clarence Brandenburg was a leader of a Ku Klux Klan chapter when he invited a reporter from a local Cincinnati news station to attend a rally. The reporter and his cameraman attended the rally and filmed what transpired; the footage was broadcast on the network at a later time. The rally consisted of gun-toting Ku Klux Klan members burning a cross, spewing racial and anti-Semitic epithets, and detailing their plan to march on Congress. In conducting this rally and giving his speech, Brandenburg violated the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism statute that made illegal advocating violence as a means of obtaining reform. Eventually the case was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States where they ruled that the Ohio Syndicalism statute was unconstitutional and that speech can only be prohibited if it produces imminent lawless action. The mere advocacy of illegal action remains constitutional. This ruling is very similar to Uruguay’s practice of protecting speech unless it condones or incites violence (Brandenburg v. Ohio).

Defamation, or making false statements, is also protected speech under U.S. law as long as the false statements are made without actual malice, or an intention to cause harm. This practice was codified with the New York Times v. Sullivan decision. In the early 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, the right-to-vote movement spearheaded by black citizens took out an “advertorial” in an issue of the New York Times. The advertorial talked about the barriers black citizens faced in trying to exercise their right to vote, and listed injustices many black folks faced at the hands of law enforcement. L.B. Sullivan saw the advertorial and claimed that he, as city commissioner of Montgomery and head of law enforcement, had been specifically implicated by the advertorial and that his name had been sullied. He filed a libel suit on the grounds of personal defamation. The case worked its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States where the court asserted that the First Amendment protects all statements, even if they are factually incorrect, as long as those statements were made without actual malice or the knowledge that the statements are false. This ruling created the “actual malice” standard, which is still effective today. It is because of this standard that people in the U.S. are allowed to say completely factually incorrect statements about public officials. This is not a freedom that those in Uruguay would have had during the regime (New York Times v. Sullivan).


Overall, there is not a significant difference between the speech and press freedoms of Uruguayans and U.S. citizens. Both countries have experienced periods of great turmoil in which laws restricting those freedoms were enacted, but those laws are not more. The two countries are ranked relatively close together on world freedom indexes, suggesting that we are more alike than we are different.

Works Cited

Bartnicki v. Vopper. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 10 April 2015.      <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2000/2000_99_1687&gt;.

Brandenburg v. Ohio. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 9 April 2015.     <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_492&gt;.

“Call for Continuing Transparency and Dialogue in Media Law’s Passage.” Reporters Without Borders. 4 Apr. 2014. Web. 3 Apr. 2015. <http://en.rsf.org/uruguay-call-for-continuing-transparency-04-04-2014,46098.html&gt;.

“CPJ Hails Approval of Press Law by Uruguayan Congress.” Committee to Protect Journalists. 11 June 2009. Web. 6 Apr. 2015. <http://www.cpj.org/2009/06/cpj-hails-approval-of-press-law-by-uruguayan-congr.php&gt;.

Davies, Wyre. “Uruguay Bids Farewell to Jose Mujica, Its Pauper President.”BBC News. 1 Mar. 2015. Web. 3 Apr. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-31679475&gt;.

“Internet Assault on Investigative Journalist.” Reporters Without Borders. 9 Feb. 2011. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://en.rsf.org/uruguay-internet-assault-on-investigative-09-02-2011,39515.html&gt;.

Karlekar, Karin Deutsch, and Eleanor Marchant, eds. Freedom of the Press 2007: A Global Survey of Media Independence. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. 319. Print.

Kaufman, Edy. “Operational Environment: Internal Setting.” Uruguay in Transition: From Civilian to Military Rule. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1979. 46-49. Print.

Hampsten, Elizabeth. “The Military Dictatorship, I: Social Control and State Militarization; Arrests.” Uruguay Nunca Más: Human Rights Violations, 1972-1985. Philadelphia: Temple UP,    1992. 38-77. Print.

Lessa, Francesca. “The Downward Spiral Toward Dictatorship.” Memory Politics and Transitional Justice : Memory and Transitional Justice in Argentina and Uruguay: Against Impunity. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 31-47. Print.

New York Times v. Sullivan. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 11 April 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1963/1963_39&gt;.

Patterson, Annabel. “Introduction.” Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England. Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1984. 22. Print

Peralta, José. “Six Things You Need to Know about Free Expression in Uruguay.” IFEX. 31 Jan. 2014. Web. 3 Apr. 2015. <http://www.ifex.org/uruguay/2014/01/31/six_things/&gt;.

“Uruguay – The Media.” Country Studies. U.S. Library of Congress, 27 July 2010. Web. 5 April 2015. <http://countrystudies.us/uruguay/80.htm&gt;.

“Uruguay.” Country Watch. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <http://www.countrywatch.com/Intelligence/CWTopicType=text&CountryID=183&Topic=PCPRF&gt;.

“Uruguay.” Freedom House. 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 4 Apr. 2015 <https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2014/uruguay#.VSPkLRPF8mU&gt;.

“2015 World Press Freedom Index.” Reporters Without Borders. 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015. <http://index.rsf.org/#!/index-details&gt;.


This essay was last updated on April 30, 2015.


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