FREE EXPRESSION UNDER ATTACK IN HONDURAS
After the June 2009 coup d'état, freedom of expression in Honduras worsened dramatically: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that “freedom of expression was one of the most restricted rights under the emergency measures.”
Censorship of media was followed by threats, attacks and murders of journalists for many months after the coup. In 2010, Honduras held the infamous title of being one of the worst countries in the world to be a reporter, with at least 10 journalists killed that year.
In response, local free expression organisation Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre), as well as international groups ARTICLE 19 and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), demanded that the Honduran government take immediate action to respect and protect freedom of expression and other basic human rights. Their demands were ignored. Worse still, it was believed the state was behind some of the attacks.
But soon there would be an opportunity to put Honduras's abysmal record under an international spotlight. In November 2010, Honduras was up for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), an evaluation of a country's human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council.
IFEX-América Latina y el Caribe (IFEX-ALC), an alliance of 17 IFEX members in the region, met in March 2010 and debated the need to engage in the UPR. For grassroots organisations with limited resources and experience in international advocacy, putting together an effective plan to influence UN Human Rights Council members was complex and daunting. But working together, it could be done. This is how they did it.
STRATEGY LEADING UP TO THE UPR
Think local. Any international advocacy strategy needs to be anchored on local diagnosis and actions to give it credibility. Relating first-hand experiences is an effective and influential tool when speaking with diplomats, politicians and other actors. C-Libre and Article 19 presented a submission to the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights detailing the free expression situation in the country. The report's recommendations formed the framework for the IFEX-ALC strategy, which focused solely on the right to freedom of expression. C-Libre also took part in meetings with other Honduran rights groups to create a plan of action for accessing the UPR. The groups ultimately agreed on a diagnosis document in which violations to the right of freedom of expression were presented together with other violations of the rights of women, LGBT and children. The document informed the framework for IFEX-ALC's strategy.
Define your objectives. IFEX-ALC created a working group to design the international advocacy strategy. The group identified three main demands:
- To investigate the human rights violations that surrounded the coup
- To adopt effective measures to protect journalists and investigate attacks and threats
- To create a legal and institutional framework for the protection of freedom of expression
The working group's main strategic objective would be to see IFEX-ALC's demands reflected as recommendations on the final UPR report. It also set an internal, organisational objective: to define IFEX-ALC as a network with a capacity for strategic action.
A brief document summarised the free-expression violations and IFEX-ALC's recommendations. This crucial tool - adapted into press releases and letters to ambassadors - could easily be distributed to delegates in Geneva.
“The way the data was produced and managed was very useful,” said Andres D'Alessandro, executive director of Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA). “It was important that the situation analysis and IFEX-ALC's advocacy objectives were clear - to facilitate internal discussions and present a coherent and unified message to our targets.”
Identify your stakeholders. The working group targeted specific members of the Human Rights Council: those who would pose direct questions on free expression to the Honduran delegation during the November session, and those who would propose recommendations in the final UPR report, due in March 2011.
Latin American Council members were identified as a primary target. Specifically, Argentina and Brazil were contacted because of their governments' positions during the coup. Other states considered sensitive to free expression, such as France, Norway and Spain, were also approached; Belgium was chosen because it was the chair of the European Union at the time of the session, and Russia, Thailand and the UK as members of the Troika (the committee responsible for drafting the final recommendations report to the Honduran government).
Lobby. In advance of the November meeting, IFEX-ALC members lobbied their own governments, as well as foreign offices and embassies, through meetings and regular communication. This way, they were able to secure in-person meetings with delegations who would be at the UPR session, and ensured that many of those in Geneva would already be familiar with IFEX-ALC.
“Lobbying key governments in advance of the UPR session was key to the success of IFEX-ALC´s strategy,” said Ramon Muñoz Castro, director of the International Network of Human Rights (RIDH), a Geneva-based organisation that offers advice on how to access the UN bureaucracy. “This success was clear as all of IFEX-ALC´s recommendations were in the final report.”
Choose your players wisely. Who would represent IFEX-ALC in Geneva? Members of the IFEX-ALC delegation to Geneva brought a mix of skills to the table: media experience, coordination expertise, diplomatic attitude, language abilities, local and regional representation, in-depth knowledge of the situation in Honduras and of international standards on freedom of expression and the UPR process, the Human Rights Commission system and the UN Palace.
AT THE UPR
Get accredited. Through ARTICLE 19, IFEX-ALC was able to secure accreditation to get into UN buildings and meetings. This access was essential for lobbying and presence at the Honduras review.
Tailor your media strategy. Instead of holding an open press conference, the IFEX-ALC delegation directly approached the media. Regular press conferences do not attract UN-based media, plus the mission budget did not allow for an elaborate press event. Besides, other prominent countries such as the USA were under review in the same week; focus on them would have overshadowed a media event on Honduras. It was therefore more strategic to target media within the UN Palace that have a specific interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. A media package with concise and easy-to-replicate materials, plus a list of potential IFEX-ALC interviewees who could speak to the situation in Spanish and English, led to extensive media coverage at the international level.
Keep up the pressure. Besides the pre-arranged meetings, the group secured meetings on site and held many informally in UN corridors and restaurants. IFEX-ALC surpassed its own target and met with 47 member states.
IFEX-ALC followed up with an oral presentation during the review at the UN Palace on 17 March 2011 (four months after the peer review) to reiterate its demands to the Honduran government. The IFEX-ALC representative in Geneva attended a meeting with the Honduran delegation as well as approached other country delegates and the media.
At the UPR session on 4 November 2010, at least 11 member states asked the Honduran delegation (headed by Vice President María Antonieta Guillén) concrete questions about the violations of freedom of information and the lack of protection of media outlets and professionals. They stressed the need to properly investigate and prosecute those responsible for the attacks and murders of journalists. In their recommendations, some members even addressed the dire free-expression situation and need to protect journalists.
Most importantly, the Honduran government responded, both at the November session and in March 2011, when the final UPR report was released. It expressed concern and regret for the violence against journalists and recognised its responsibility in bringing justice. The Honduran delegation assured Council that it was committed to implementing the recommendations. It also announced a boost in resources to existing human rights bodies, and the creation of a new Ministry for Justice and Human Rights.
IFEX-ALC's approach showed that a coordinated and focused strategy has great chance of success if planned well in advance and based on the diverse skills and capacities of different organisations. What was an impossible task for a single organisation became an opportunity for impact in Honduras and on the international stage.
Beyond the UPR, the recommendations will serve as a road map for the Honduran government. Meanwhile, civil society organisations now have a yardstick by which to measure the government's progress.
“Helping to design IFEX-ALC's strategy was an important step in developing IFEX-ALC's capacity to lobby internationally,” said Andres Morales, executive director of FLIP, based in Colombia. “It also allowed many organisations like FLIP to engage in a very positive experience beyond our national mandates.”
“The impact of the joint lobby action around the freedom of expression situation in Honduras went beyond the UPR itself,” added Morales. “Together we managed to put freedom of expression at the centre of the human rights debate and make IFEX-ALC and its members a reference point on the issue and on the region.”