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IACHR's Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression turns 20

IFEX Deputy Executive Director Rachael Kay and Nela Balbi, IPYS Venezuela Executive Director and IFEX-ALC President, were among those who attended the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, in Bogotá, Colombia

The five individuals who have acted as Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, gather in Bogota, Colombia, 3 November 2017; from left to right, Eduardo Bertoni, Santiago Cantón, Catalina Botero, Ignacio Alvarez and Edison Lanza
The five individuals who have acted as Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, gather in Bogota, Colombia, 3 November 2017; from left to right, Eduardo Bertoni, Santiago Cantón, Catalina Botero, Ignacio Alvarez and Edison Lanza

This OAS press release was originally published on oas.org on 7 November 2017.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Santiago Cantón, Eduardo Bertoni, Ignacio Alvarez, Catalina Botero, and Edison Lanza - the five experts who have occupied, in that order, the position of Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression thus far - underscore the fundamental role that the office has played in monitoring the situation of freedom of expression in the hemisphere and promoting high standards in the field.

Since the creation of the Office of the Special Rapporteur in 1997, the region has made important strides in the protection, promotion, and guarantee of the free exercise of the right to freedom of expression, and has made significant progress in bringing national laws into line with the inter-American standards. These advances are the result of the work of a civil society dedicated to the defense and promotion of the right to freedom of expression in the region, the intense efforts by the Office of the Special Rapporteur to shine a spotlight on existing problems, promote the development of specialized case law and scholarship, and formulate proposals, as well as the States responsiveness to carry out changes in line with inter-American standards and the recommendations made.

Indeed, twenty-three countries in the Americas have enacted laws on access to public information. Most jurisdictions in the region have repealed laws that penalize offensive speech directed at public officials, generally known as "desacato laws," and there has been a gradual trend toward the repeal or amendment of other criminal defamation offenses [calumnias e injurias], in particular with a view to protecting speech referring to public servants or matters of public interest.

Some countries in the region particularly affected by the phenomenon of violence against journalists have also adopted special mechanisms for their protection and have established special prosecutors' offices to investigate those crimes.

Similarly, in these past 20 years the expansion of the Internet has transformed and strengthened the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the region, and this technology has become an essential instrument for promoting the full enjoyment of other human rights.

The work of journalism - as the primary manifestation of freedom of expression - has also had a fundamental impact on anti-corruption efforts in the region during these years, reinforcing the need to guarantee freedom of the press, promote investigative journalism, and foster high standards of journalistic quality and the ethical self-regulation of the profession.

Despite these notable advances, ongoing challenges make it clear that the mandate of the Office of the Special Rapporteur continues to be relevant and valid as we look to the future. Violence against journalists and high rates of impunity with respect to such crimes are still the greatest threat to the exercise of freedom of expression in the Americas. According to figures reported by the Office of the Special Rapporteur, between January 1, 2010 and November 1, 2017, at least 177 journalists and media workers were killed for reasons possibly related to the practice of their profession. In most cases, the murdered journalists worked in places far from major urban centers and covered local news about corruption, drug trafficking, organized crime, public safety, and matters related to the political and economic powers that be. The vast majority of these crimes have gone completely unpunished.

It is also troubling that criticism, political dissidence, and participation in social protests are still criminalized in some countries of the region. At the same time, there is cause for alarm in the weakening of democratic forms of government and the installation of authoritarian regimes in countries in the hemisphere that are once again engaging in censorship, the arbitrary shutdown of media outlets, and the use of indirect means to interfere in or control the operation of the media as a consequence of their editorial angles.

Inequality and discrimination against at-risk groups of persons and communities and the resulting difficulty in accessing public forums continue to be a structural defect in the process of democratic deliberation in the Americas, and greater efforts are required in order to overcome these conditions.

Along the same lines, the development of technology also brings with it a new set of challenges, generally related to the scale of dissemination of the possibilities that it brings, such as the role and type of responsibility that intermediaries have with regard to Internet access and the circulation of information online; the handling of information and the viral dissemination of deliberately "fake news" with knowledge of it; unlawful spying on journalists and human rights defenders; the approach to problems such as online hate speech or speech inciting violence, and the growth of surveillance technology and its regulation, among others.

In these 20 years of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, the five regional experts reiterate that the right to freedom of expression must be fully respected and guaranteed in order for the region to overcome these challenge and consolidate democracy as a system of government, and that only through democratic strengthening can peace be achieved and conflicts between persons and peoples be prevented.

In this regard, the experts acknowledge the support offered by the Inter-American Commission, the States, civil society, and the media for the office's work throughout this time, and they urge the States to renew their commitment to the inter-American principles and standards on freedom of expression.

Santiago Canton (1998-2001), Eduardo Bertoni (2002-2005), Ignacio Álvarez (2006-2008), Catalina Botero (2008-2014), and Edison Lanza (2014-present).

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