Latin American free expression organisations met in Ecuador this week and issued an urgent call for states to address violence against journalists and the problem of impunity
Today, 25 April 2018, marks a month since the kidnapping of a team of journalists from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper. The incident occurred on the border of Colombia and Ecuador, and resulted – according to recent information – in their murder. As the 24 member organisations that make up the IFEX-ALC network for the defence of freedom of expression, free, independent and safe journalism, we are raising our voices against what we perceive to be a growing trend in the region, where 16 journalists have been murdered so far this year.
We demand all Latin American and Caribbean states to urgently implement effective measures that protect the physical integrity of journalists within their borders. We also urge them to swiftly investigate and sanction cases of violence and murder that journalists may be victim to.
It is unacceptable for states to be ineffective – and unable to coordinate efforts – in order to properly protect the lives of journalists who report on complex issues. A recent example of this is the triple kidnapping and probable murder of journalist Javier Ortega, photojournalist Paúl Rivas and driver Efraín Segarra. The incident occurred at the hands of the Oliver Sinisterra Front – a group of FARC dissidents – known for its ties to drug trafficking.
Equally unacceptable is the inaction, by states, to confront impunity. For example, photojournalist Vladimir Legagneur was murdered in Haiti over a month ago, but his body has yet to be properly identified by the state. His murder adds to the deplorable list of impunity-related cases that Haiti has endured since 2000.
Violence against journalists and media employees constitutes one of the most extreme forms of censorship. As a reminder: Inter-American System standards clearly declare that states have the responsibility to ensure that journalism can be practised freely, and to protect the right to free expression. In this respect, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has stated: “Journalism can only be practised freely when the people who do so are not victims of threats, physical attacks, nor are they subject to physical, psychological, moral, or other forms of harassment. These acts constitute serious obstacles to the ability to fully exercise freedom of expression.”
Other forms of violence
Violence against journalists takes various forms across the region. Many journalists who are attacked – or die on the job – are targeted for investigating stories related to drug trafficking, corruption, and organised crime. These kinds of investigations are considered a threat to state powers, who then become complicit in the violence – either directly, or through negligence. In these contexts, the work of the press becomes the only way for citizens to discuss the situation they are enduring. Emblematic examples of this violence can be found in Mexico and Guatemala. Ecuador now sadly joins this list with the recent case of the probable murder of the El Comercio journalists.
In other cases, violence against journalists is expressed and practised directly by state agents in the context of social movements or political conflicts. Brazil and Venezuela have experienced the latter over the past few years, and – in the last few days – so has Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, an attempt to reform the Social Security system imposed by the government of Daniel Ortega sparked a series of protests that were repressed by police, leaving over 30 people dead and many injured. On Saturday 21 April, journalist Ángel Gahona was shot dead in Nicaragua while reporting the protests live, on-air. UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Liz Throssell has made an urgent appeal to the government of Nicaragua to respect freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. In this vein, in Argentina, the main aggressor towards the press were numerous government security forces on both national and provincial levels. They have been responsible for 43 per cent of attacks registered in the past year. It is thus important to underscore the risk that is happening at street protests, which represent 91 cases (of 132) in which security forces were the main aggressors. The rest of the attacks can be attributed to radicalised protesters (1).
In Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru, violence against journalists is used by local political powers to censor unfavourable coverage. We expect this trend to continue throughout the year as elections are held in the aforementioned countries.
In addition to physical violence, journalists experience judicial harassment. This kind of harassment has been reported in Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, and is used as an intimidation technique by political and economic authorities. Judicial harassment is often used to accuse journalists of causing social unrest through investigations that expose abuse of power or corruption that implicate authorities.
There have also been reports of coordinated, politically-motivated, digital attacks on journalists in the Caribbean, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela. There has even been illegal spying through malware; this occurred in Mexico, and the case was presented before the IACHR.
Finally, economic violence against the press manifests itself in Bolivia and Mexico through the marginalisation of independent media groups and critics of powerful political figures. This kind of violence is imposed through legislation that requires the dissemination of an overwhelming amount of government propaganda, taking away space from coverage in the public interest. Economic violence also manifests in directives that allow for the control of the press, through the economic power of state advertising. In Argentina, some provincial media outlets have become dependent on government advertising, which, in many cases, is their main source of income.
We are concerned about these tendencies – far from stopping, they appear to be increasing in our region. Just as violence against the press is getting more complex and sophisticated, the need for states in the region to respond becomes even more urgent.
Through the Universal Periodic Review, various states in the region – such as Guatemala (2), Brazil (3), Mexico (4) and Paraguay (5) – have committed to adopting mechanisms to protect journalists. Nevertheless, these mechanisms have not been implemented in a timely fashion. In instances where they have been implemented, the mechanisms have shown to be unsuccessful. These and other Latin America and the Caribbean states must take responsibility for the implementation of effective measures to protect free expression. They must ensure the press is free from threats, so that it can serve its purpose as a vessel for delivering information in the public interest (6).
We exhort the governments of Latin American and the Caribbean to take concrete steps to effectively protect free expression as a human right. We urge these governments to renounce the climate of impunity surrounding the violence and murder of journalists in our region – violence that they are either directly responsible for, or complicit in.
(2) Follow-Up Report, first cycle, UPR, 2012. Available at: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/157/63/pdf/G1215763.pdf?OpenElement
(4) See: UPR first and second cycle. There are mentions by the state about the adoption of the law that created the protection mechanisms https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/163/24/PDF/G0916324.pdf?OpenElement and https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G13/189/45/PDF/G1318945.pdf?OpenElement
(5) See 2016 UPR. There is a brief mention about what could be done in the creation of a law to create a protection mechanism. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/075/52/PDF/G1607552.pdf?OpenElement
(6) In the case of Guatemala, regarding the on-site visit to the IACHR in 2017, the president himself announced that the mechanism would be created. The IACHR made a recommendation in its country report that the mechanism should be done following international standards http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/informes/pdfs/Guatemala2017-es.pdf In the case of Mexico, the IACHR also made various recommendations based on the proper functioning of the mechanism (http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/docs/anual/2017/docs/IA2017cap.5MX-es.pdf)