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Free expression special rapporteur under attack

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (right) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have been vocal about their disdain for the OAS and the special rapporteur on free expression
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (right) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have been vocal about their disdain for the OAS and the special rapporteur on free expression

Jorge Silva/REUTERS

At the Washington-based Organization of American States, Ecuador has put forward proposals that in effect could severely weaken or kill the OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, which would be "a step backwards for free expression in the region," says IFEX member in Colombia the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP). IFEX's Latin American and Caribbean group (IFEX-ALC), an alliance of 16 IFEX members based in the region, has protested the move.

According to FLIP, which contributed to an article in Colombia's "Semana" magazine, a group of OAS member countries created a working group in July to discuss the future of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and specifically the role of the free expression rapporteur, currently held by Colombian lawyer Catalina Botero.

Proposals introduced by Ecuador on 13 December - moments before the mandate of the working group was to expire - "would weaken the rapporteur's office and leave it without teeth to fulfill its role," "Semana" said.

The proposals prohibit the rapporteur from publishing a separate annual report on free expression in the OAS countries; adjust funding to make all rapporteur budgets comparable (thus reducing funding for the free expression rapporteur, which has one of the largest budgets); and call for a code of conduct that would limit the rapporteur's actions, including the ability to put out statements.

The recommendations are to be considered by the Permanent Council of Ambassadors of the OAS on 25 January, and it's not clear how they will react. According to "Semana", the Colombian ambassador said that the recommendations "are less drastic than originally proposed," and representatives from Brazil and Argentina, heavyweights in the region, have remained silent.

The rapporteur's office has become "the door that journalists from the Americas knock on when their freedom is in jeopardy," "Semana" said.

The rapporteur has also been essential at promoting the decriminalisation of libel and insult laws, and bringing attention to indirect methods of censorship, such as the arbitrary allocation of government advertising or the granting of broadcast licences, says IFEX-ALC.

IFEX-ALC has written to the Permanent Council, urging them to withdraw the recommendations at the 25 January meeting. "Rather than strengthening the role of the rapporteur, these changes would actually diminish the impact of the mandate in the region," said IFEX-ALC. Read the statement here.

In December, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa launched a campaign to discredit the rapporteur after the publication of a report condemning the use of libel laws in Ecuador to silence critical speech, especially against public officials, says Human Rights Watch. Correa himself has filed about US$90 million in lawsuits against three critical journalists.

Referring specifically to the rapporteur's office, Correa said, "We need a new inter-American system because the OAS has been taken over by a North American vision that has made it inefficient and untrustworthy."

Another leading player in the OAS working group, Venezuela, has also been quite open about its disdain for the OAS and the rapporteur's office, which have repeatedly accused President Hugo Chávez's government of threatening free speech.

Chávez's numerous clashes with the media, including accusations against Globovisión and other private channels of backing a short-lived coup against him in 2002, have drawn strong criticism from the rapporteur for creating an atmosphere of intimidation that effectively limits free expression.

"If for diplomatic or legal reasons, it is not possible to amend the report and withdraw the recommendations, OAS member states should emphasise that this report was the consequence of a process to strengthen, and not weaken, the inter-American human rights system," said José Miguel Vivanco. "These recommendations should be interpreted to favour, and not undermine, the work of the office of the special rapporteur."

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