November in the Americas: A roundup of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports.
Protests continue around Latin America
Protests continued to take place in almost a dozen countries across Latin America in November. Despite having very diverse origins and dynamics, protests in the region share some common traits: the violence with which they have been repressed; police and armed forces’ poor adherence to rules of engagement and behaviour protocols; a lack of accountability; and a serious disrespect for international human rights standards. The knotty relationship between civil and military authorities became clear on many occasions, in a region that still struggles to leave behind its recent past of dictatorship and abuses.
Following grave events in Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile, these countries received observation missions from international human rights bodies, including representatives of the UN OHCHR and members of the IACHR. All expressed deep concern with the situation observed on the ground and called for investigations.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, shared information collected during its visit to Chile, and the numbers are shocking: as per information provided by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, five people died as a direct result of the action of carabineros and armed forces, and two reported cases of suicide that took place within prison facilities are still under investigation.
The Ministry for Justice and Human Rights reported that, by 13 November, 20,583 people had been detained, 950 of whom remained at that point in preventive imprisonment. The Ministry of Health affirmed that 11,564 people had received emergency medical support due to injuries suffered during public demonstrations. The Medical College (Colegio Medico) of Chile recorded 283 cases of eye injuries.
Amnesty International carried out a fact-finding mission to the country, documenting numerous violations. According to its Americas’ Director:
The intention of the Chilean security forces is clear: to injure demonstrators in order to discourage protest, even to the extent of using torture and sexual violence against protesters. Instead of taking measures to curb the very grave human rights crisis, the authorities, under the command of President Sebastián Piñera, have pursued a policy of punishment for over a month, adding yet more people to the staggering number of victims, which is continuing to rise to this day.
Human Rights Watch called for a reform of Chilean police forces, after the violations that took place during October and November.
A similarly critical situation was reported in Bolivia. As of 11 November, the Bolivian Ombuds Office had documented 438 cases of people injured, 227 detentions and three deaths associated with the protests. By 14 November, the Bolivian National Press Association (Asociación Nacional de Prensa, ANP) had documented a total of 64 journalists who had come under attack.
On 16 November, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, affirmed that ”while earlier deaths mostly resulted from clashes between rival protesters, the latest incidents appear to be due to the disproportionate use of force by the army and police”. She called on the Bolivian authorities to ensure security forces comply with international standards on the use of force, following the deaths of at least five protesters on 15 November.
After visiting the country, the head of the IACHR suggested that Bolivia may need outside help to investigate the ‘massive’ number of human rights violations amid post-election violence. The Commission’s Rapporteur for Bolivia proposed the creation of a panel of experts to investigate the facts, and described the political crisis in the country as alarming.
On 21 November, it was Colombia’s turn, during what was called a ‘National Strike’. Once again, the response by authorities was the abusive use of force, resulting in 122 people injured and the death of three demonstrators. IFEX member Fundacion para la Libertad de prensa (FLIP) documented 42 cases of attacks against journalists, making this the most violent demonstration for media workers ever recorded by the organisation. Most of the cases were perpetrated by the police.
The IACHR issued a press release in which it affirmed having received information about the excessive use of force by agents of Colombian Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), arbitrary detentions, and acts of violence.
In late November, a number of NGOs, including IFEX-ALC members, issued a statement expressing their concern with how governments in Latin America have been using digital technologies to repress, criminalise and persecute demonstrators exercising their legitimate rights to assembly and expression. The groups consider that Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador have been using these technologies in a manner not in accordance with democratic principles and fundamental rights.
Despite so many violations and attacks, the extensive coverage of demonstrations throughout Latin America is evidence of the continuous work of the press and the courage of media workers who do not shy away from reporting on key sociopolitical developments in their countries. In crisis situations it is imperative to provide guarantees for the work of the media, in order to ensure broad and diverse coverage of events.
For journalists covering protests and demonstrators, organisations in the region, including many IFEX members, provide support and resources. You can check out some of them here:
- Derechos Digitales – Protestas seguras
- Derechos Digitales – Desactivar la desinformación
- Derechos Digitales – Evitar bloqueos y censura
- EFF’s Surveillance & Self Defense – Tips, Tools and How-Tos for Safer online Communications
- FLIP’s Manual de Autoprotección para Periodistas
- FLIP’s Manual Antiespías: Herramientas para la protección digital de periodistas
- Karisma’s Consejos de Seguridad Digital y Herramientas Digitales durante una Protesta
- R3D’s video about encrypted messaging services
An international mission to Mexico
In early November, a coalition of 17 international organisations dedicated to the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and information arrived in Mexico to address the situation of impunity in crimes against journalists, within the framework of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists (IDEI), which has been commemorated every 2 November since 2013. The mission’s goal was to place freedom of expression as a priority on the national government’s agenda, as well as to encourage the Mexican government’s commitment to reduce the level of impunity for crimes against journalists.
Following a dialogue with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference on 6 November and meetings with Mexican government officials, organisations underscored their concern regarding the lack of guarantees offered by the Mexican state to solve the country’s grave freedom of expression crisis, and the state’s failure to recognise the seriousness of the problem.
As a result of the mission, the following action points were agreed on:
- The establishment of a twice-yearly meeting with the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) regarding the implementation of the relevant protocol (Protocolo homologado) governing the investigation of crimes against freedom of expression.
- The creation of a working group to drive the implementation of the 104 recommendations made by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the federal protection mechanism for journalists. During the press conference, President López Obrador committed to guarantee implementing those recommendations.
- The creation of a platform to view all recommendations given by international bodies as well as the status of their implementation.
- Lawmakers from different parties committed to working with civil society to push forward legislative changes.
However, the mission does not feel that these commitments will be sufficient to reduce the level of impunity. Based on meetings they held with Mexican civil society groups and journalists from different Mexican states, the mission identified the stigmatisation of media workers as one of the biggest concerns, as it worsens the already vulnerable conditions in which journalists work, especially for those in the interior of the country. The mission also raised the issue of surveillance carried out against journalists by the Mexican state.
A report detailing the activities and presenting findings and recommendations will be available soon.
Justice system silencing voices in Venezuela
During November, two serious cases are raising concerns about the role of the Venezuelan Justice system in securing the rights to freedom of expression and information.
The first is the case of Luiz Carlos Diaz. Mr. Diaz was arrested while cycling home on 12 March 2019 by members of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin). Hours later, his house was searched. Diaz is a well-known journalist, critical of the government, who had been accused by a top government official of taking part in a plot to cause a nationwide blackout. He was accused of “public incitement”, and forbidden to leave the country or talk about his case to the media.
The legal deadline for the Public Prosecutor to present a formal case against the journalist was 12 November. However, eight months after what IFEX’s member Espacio Público considered an ‘arbitrary arrest’, no evidence was presented to base a continuation of legal proceedings against Diaz. Espacio Público called for the immediate end of investigations and cautionary measures against Luis Carlos Diaz, and that he be declared innocent of all accusations.
In another case, Ana Belen Tovar, Operations Manager at Venmedios/Entorno Inteligente – Venezuelan media outlets, was taken by officers of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) after a search of the company’s offices on 19 November, in Caracas.
The DGCIM officers did not present a court order at the time, only a document that included no reasons for the arrest or the specific offences supposedly under investigation. Tovar remained detained for a week with no communication with her lawyers or family, and was not presented to any tribunal. After this, legal proceedings were initiated under accusations of undue disclosure of data, under the information crimes law, and obstruction to the administration of justice and criminal association, under the organized crime and terrorism financing act. Ana Belen remains imprisoned at the DGCIM’s facilities.
On 25 November, the IACHR expressed its concern over the events.
Espacio Público affirmed that the procedures against Ana Belen are tainted with irregularities, and called for her immediate release.
Disinformation in Brazil
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has a long-established confrontational relationship with civil society organisations, especially those working on environmental issues.
In August, after reports of extensive fires in the Amazon and strong critiques of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric in relation to indigenous peoples and the protection of the forests, the president of Brazil claimed that NGOs were behind the Amazon forest fire surge. No evidence was provided.
When large protests sparked in neighbouring countries, Bolsonaro affirmed, in an interview, that he had requested his Ministry of Defense to “monitor” the Brazilian context, so that any attempted organisation of large demonstrations in the country could be “repressed by the armed forces”. This raised deep concern among NGOs, who issued a request to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, asking them to investigate possible violations of privacy and related rights; governmental monitoring and control activities sometimes go beyond legally allowed limits, compromising relevant aspects of the lives and work of individuals and civil associations.
Bolsonaro then specifically accused the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and American actor Leonardo DiCaprio of funding the fires. WWF responded that the accusations were lies. Civil society organisations from the region, including IFEX’s member ARTIGO 19 Brasil, have called on human rights authorities to fully investigate and take action on the case.
Justice for Berta Caceres
We salute the news that a Honduran court found seven people guilty of participating in the 2016 murder of prize-winning indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Caceres. An eighth suspect was acquitted. They face up to 30 years in prison for the murder conviction, and their sentences will be announced on 10 January 2020.
Inspiring women, creative protests
On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women gathered outside the supreme court building in Santiago, Chile, performing “Un violador en tu camino” – a song and choreography slamming violence against women and denouncing the shameful treatment of victims of such violence. Protesters questioned the failure of the justice system to act on cases and the low rate of convictions (only about 8% of all rapes in Chile end up with a conviction). The demonstration’s video went viral, sparking support and similarly inspiring performances by women around the world.
A new Access to Information Law for Ecuador
Ecuador has had an Access to Information Law (Ley Orgánica de Transparencia y Acceso a la Información Pública – LOTAIP) for 15 years. The Public Defender’s Office and civil society organisations, including IFEX member Fundamedios, called on legislators to reform and update the LOPTAIP. A draft bill has been prepared and is currently open for comments and contributions.
The threats to local journalism in the United States
A new PEN America report – Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions – sounds the alarm about the existential threat facing local watchdog journalism in the United States and proposes big-picture solutions for its revitalisation, calling for a radical rethinking of local journalism as a public good.
Nicaragua – continued human rights crisis
On 13 November, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the IACHR affirmed that “[t]he biggest challenge we have as human rights organisations is to inform the world that the repression in Nicaragua continues.” The IACHR Follow-up Mechanism on Nicaragua (MESENI) was informed of a hunger strike initiated in the San Miguel de Masaya church to demand the release of political prisoners in Nicaragua, and of the arrest of 13 people who were trying to provide support to the strike on 14 November.
Another journalist killed in Honduras
On 25 November, Jose Arita, a journalist with Channel 12 in Puerto Cortes, was murdered when leaving the TV station where he worked. Honduran authorities have been called on to promptly investigate the circumstances of the case.
EFF’s About Face Campaign
EFF has partnered with community-based organisations in the Electronic Frontier Alliance – and other concerned civil society organisations – in launching the About Face campaign, calling for an end to government use of face surveillance in the United States. The campaign site (aboutfacenow.org) includes a petition and features helpful resources to support local efforts, as well as draft legislation community members and local lawmakers can adapt to meet the needs of their community.
Asia & Pacific