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Betting on the digital realm, organisations fight against attacks on free expression

September was replete with activities across the Americas as IFEX-ALC launched its regional Digital Security campaign for journalists and Karisma went forward with its "Alerta Machitrolls" movement, all in the midst of attacks and threats against free expression.

A woman uses her cell phone during a 25 May 2010 concert in Caracas, Venezuela
A woman uses her cell phone during a 25 May 2010 concert in Caracas, Venezuela


September was an intense month in the Americas, with journalist deaths and attacks on media outlets and reporters taking place within the framework of a complicated year for free expression.

In the midst of this situation, IFEX-ALC network members relaunched, for the second consecutive year, their "Smarter. Better. Safer." campaign, geared toward improving the security situation for journalists in the Americas. As part of the campaign, IFEX-ALC provides tips on how to protect sources, information, passwords, and e-mails, all of which are sensitive areas for journalism in the digital age. One of the instructive videos on the topic provides a summary of best practices:

The campaign is taking place within a context of extensive attacks on the press in the region. In Mexico, journalist Mario Gómez, a correspondent for the Heraldo de Chiapas newspaper, was gunned down. Gómez was the ninth journalist assassinated this year in Mexico, which remains the most dangerous country in the world in which to practice journalism.

Gómez had filed complaints with the authorities about death threats in 2008, 2010, 2016 and 2017, according to El Universal newspaper. The Chiapas Public Prosecutor's Office concluded that the journalist's assassination was linked to his work.

As the same time, a report published in September noted that 24 journalists have gone missing in Mexico since 2003.

Threats and gender campaigns

Meanwhile, in Colombia the narco-paramilitary organisation Águilas Negras has issued seven threats against media outlets and journalists thus far in 2018, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP). This information was released just one month after the death of a commentator in the country and after FLIP reported on an increasing climate of hostility toward the media.

In addition, journalists Alberto Castaño and María Lourdes Zimmermann, who covered environmental issues, were forced into exile after receiving repeated death threats.

Colombian civil society, however, is also organising itself in an effort to move toward more secure conditions for free expression as the Karisma Foundation went forward with the third consecutive year of its on-line campaign "Alerta Machitrolls". The campaign uses humour to identify behaviours that constitute attacks on the rights of women to express themselves and share opinions on the Internet. The campaign and its technological tools are designed to generate a counter-discourse against violence in digital media directed at women and gender dissidents.

Digital surveillance and human rights

In Chile, the issue of digital surveillance has come to the fore in recent months. In early August, a young student tweeted about a dream he had that involved a minister of state who is the current Chilean government spokesperson. In the tweet, the student commented that the dream involved an attempt to seduce the minister for the purpose of placing a bomb in her house. A few weeks later, the student was subjected to a criminal investigation after the minister filed a complaint.

For IFEX's Chilean member, Derechos Digitales, "the announcement of the investigation demonstrated that, in the digital age, those in political power have not abandoned the practice of selectively using the law against citizens."

On 23 September 2017, in a coordinated action involving the national police and the Araucanía Public Prosecutor's Office, eight individuals belonging to the Mapuche indigenous group were detained for their alleged involvement in a series of arson attacks. After the detentions, it was revealed that the main incriminating evidence was a series of WhatsApp and Telegram conversations obtained by intercepting the messaging applications. The individuals were later released from detention amid serious questioning of the authorities' investigative methods.

A year later, Derechos Digitales is still conducting an investigation into the government's digital surveillance capacity and the degree to which that capacity is employed.

In Ecuador, a shift in the government's treatment of the media is becoming apparent. IFEX member Fundamedios, however, has commented that human rights violations have taken place for a decade and that this has yet to be recognised. A Fundamedios statement noted, "More than 2,500 cases have been reported and documented. Many of these cases represent very serious violations of human rights, but when viewed collectively they constitute something even more deplorable: a systematic and large scale violation of human rights resulting from direct orders issued by the highest officials and executed by factions operating at all levels of state power."

In Brief

In Peru, the Peruvian National Journalists Association (Asociación Nacional de Periodistas del Perú, ANP) expressed their deep concern over repeated physical attacks on photojournalists.

In Brazil, IFEX member ABRAJI denounced the fact that three months have passed since the murder of radio journalist Jairo de Sousa and the authorities have thus far failed to determine who killed him and who ordered the assassination.

The vice-chancellor of Nicaragua justified censorship of the press during the ongoing crisis and demonstrations in the country.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called on the United States to reaffirm a court ruling that, under the First Amendment, protects those who criticise patent owners.

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