We, the 24 member organisations of the IFEX-ALC network, who work to defend freedom of expression and press freedom in 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries and who form part of the broader IFEX network that defends and promotes free expression worldwide, express our deep concern over the freedom of expression situation in Honduras.
In recent months, numerous demonstrations calling for President Juan Orlando to resign and protesting against deep economic and social deficiencies in the country have been harshly repressed by the police, and have also seen a number of attacks on journalists. According to Amnesty International figures, six people have died and dozens more have been injured due to the disproportionate use of force by the authorities.
The Security Secretariat in Honduras has said it reserves the right to conduct an “exhaustive analysis of the malicious content that is inciting the population to unrest.”
An unfavourable legal environment for freedom of expression is exacerbating the situation. We, the members of IFEX-ALC, are concerned about criminal code reforms that are set to come into effect this year, as well as draft cybersecurity legislation that is currently being considered by the Honduran Congress. This draft legislation would incorporate provisions on cybercrime into the legal framework, and has already received approval after first and second debate. The content of these laws is highly alarming, as is the process by which they are making their way through Congress.
The lack of transparency regarding the congressional agenda is a barrier to citizen participation and prevents those who are interested in the proposed legislation currently being debated from being able to act or express their views to the Members of Congress who represent them.
The reforms to the criminal code include criminalisation of offenses against “honour”, such as “insult” and slander, and even cover offences of these kinds that are indirect in nature. The Inter-American System for the protection of human rights has repeatedly expressed its concern over the use of legislation that criminalises any type of expression owing to the inhibitory effects that such laws have on freedom of expression.
Criminalisation of expression can facilitate political persecution of those who use digital platforms to comment on issues of public interest since the government may consider their commentaries to be offensive.
Meanwhile, although the proposed law on cybersecurity mentions institutions linked to cybersecurity policies, such as the cybernetic incident response centre, we are concerned that this law is in reality aimed at controlling user-produced content. Although it is couched within the framework of cybersecurity, the initiative actually legitimises proposed legislation that provides for control of social media, resulting in censorship.
In addition, the cybersecurity law includes provisions for regulating digital platforms, establishing intermediary responsibilities that run contrary to the promotion and protection of freedom of expression. If this law is approved in Honduras, digital platform providers, which are usually large private businesses, will be tasked with blocking or removing content within 24 hours, without any mechanism in place for affected parties to file a complaint either to halt or protest the blocking or removal of that content.
The proposed legislation seeks to address these criticisms with the creation of an inter-institutional entity comprised of private and public sector actors, relegating civil society, academia and the technical community to a secondary and passive role, and, as such, failing to offer the transparency and legal certainty that this type of mechanism should provide. It also fails to allay concerns regarding the privatisation of activities that should be dealt with in the judicial realm.
The risks denoted above are further exacerbated by a stipulation outlining a requirement for digital platforms to retain information on the IP addresses of users for 30 days. From this provision it can be assumed that the goal is to aid with the policing function of the rapid response centre in order to support the system for monitoring individuals, thus conferring powers that represent a threat to democratic principles and freedom of expression.
IFEX-ALC urges the Honduran government to:
- Respect and guarantee the freedom of expression and overall human rights of the country’s citizens, and immediately halt repressive actions against demonstrators. Likewise, to protect and guarantee the right to freedom of expression of journalists who are covering the demonstrations.
- Adopt a criminal law framework that aligns with international standards, in particular the standards set out by the Inter-American System of Human Rights. The criminal law framework must provide for legal certainty and avoid ambiguities, which is the opposite of what the currently proposed cybersecurity legislation and criminal code reforms provide.
- Adapt the proposed cybersecurity legislation to international standards set out, among others, by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.