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April 8, 1998

Press freedom around the Americas will get a boost with the recently-established position of special rapporteur on freedom of expression by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the human rights agency of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The rapporteur will monitor press freedom violations around the hemisphere, taking complaints and reporting to the IACHR commissioners with recommended courses of action.

The formal launch took place today at a press conference called at the OAS headquarters, with the IACHR first vice chairman, Prof. Robert Goldman, explaining that the decision was prompted by the increasing number of reports of attacks on journalists and media owners. He said that given the centrality of freedom of expression which includes freedom of the press, in a departure from its usual practice, the Commission decided to have a single, rather than multiple, rapporteur.

He also revealed that the Commission is to hold a session in Colombia where the criteria on which the selection of an individual for the position would be defined. That session will coincide with the OAS special General Assembly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the OAS charter on April 30.

Among other individuals discussing the special rapporteur position was US President Bill Clinton's aide, Sidney Blumenthal, who told the packed room of reporters that the nations of the hemisphere recognized freedom of expression and freedom of the press as sacrosanct values. Citing the president's recent statements on the subject, Mr. Blumenthal said "they are fundamental human rights. They are hardly abstract. They are catalysts for the construction of democratic societies."

The US government commended the Commission's initiative in establishing the special rapporteur, said Mr. Blumenthal, adding that it "will go far to strengthen existing OAS mechanisms for protecting other human rights."

Calling on countries to cooperate and deal with threats to press freedom, he also identified some of the threats as violence, intimidations, crimes of impunity, restrictive laws against free expression, laws establishing so-called "truthful information" which he said was a code for control, licensing of journalists, and economic pressure. "If democracies are to remain democratic, our interest depends on constant and open debate, free from bullying of any kind."

For his part, Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) President Oliver Clarke, who is also chairman and managing director of Jamaica's premier newspaper, The Gleaner, asserted that drug traffickers posed a real threat to press freedom, "from the enormous amounts of money they can mobilize and form their commitment to avoid transparency pretty much at all costs."

IAPA, which passed a resolution recently supporting the IACHR special rapporteur, was seeking to ask the OAS to include the issue of crimes against journalists on the agenda for its General Assembly session to be held in Venezuela next June.

The special rapporteur proposal has enjoyed endorsement by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among other represented at today's press conference.

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