Freedom of Expression

Indirect restrictions

Article 13 of the American Convention states that "freedom of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions."[1]  Indirect methods of restriction frequently involve the use of legitimate regulatory and other mechanisms in a discriminatory or abusive manner to reward or punish journalists or others for what they express.

The earliest case addressing this type of problem was the 1982 case of Bishop Juan Gerardi.[2]  Bishop Gerardi, a Guatemalan citizen, was denied reentry into Guatemala after attending a function of the Catholic Church in Rome, where he presented a report about the situation of the Church in Guatemala.  The Commission found that the act of denying reentry to Bishop Gerardi constituted a violation of Article 13 of the American Convention, although it did not provide the specific legal reasoning for this decision.

In a 1988 case, the Commission considered a similar situation.[3]  The petitioner in the case was Nicolas Estiverne, a Haitian who became a naturalized U.S. citizen and then later returned to Haiti to live and regain his Haitian citizenship.  In 1986, the petitioner launched a campaign for the presidency of Haiti.  During his presidential campaign, the petitioner denounced on television and radio a general’s alleged plan to assume power.  The Haitian government ordered that the petitioner be expelled from the country because the petitioner’s acts had allegedly compromised the public order.  The Commission found that the order of expulsion against Mr. Estiverne was motivated by political considerations, in order to silence his criticisms of the general.Therefore, the order of expulsion violated Article 13 of the American Convention.

A more explicit condemnation of the use of indirect restrictions on freedom of expression can be found in the Ivcher Bronstein Case decided by the Inter-America Court in 2001.[4]  The petitioner in this case, Baruch Ivcher Bronstein, was a naturalized citizen of Peru and was the majority shareholder in the company that operated the Peruvian television Channel 2.  As majority shareholder, Mr. Ivcher Bronstein exercised editorial control over the channel’s programs.  One of the channel’s programs, Contrapunto, reported various news stories about abuses, including torture and acts of corruption, committed by the Peruvian Intelligence Services.  As a result of these reports, Mr. Ivcher Bronstein was subject to a number of intimidating actions, culminating in a decree to revoke Mr. Ivcher Bronstein’s Peruvian citizenship.  The Court found that “the resolution that revoked the citizenship of Mr. Ivcher constituted an indirect means of restricting his freedom of expression, as well as that of the journalists who work and investigate for the program Contrapunto on Peruvian television Channel 2.”[5]  Additionally, the Court concluded that “by separating Mr. Ivcher from the control of Channel 2, and excluding the journalists from the program Contrapunto, the State not only restricted the right of these individuals to circulate news, ideas and opinions, but also affected the right of all Peruvians to receive information, limiting their right to exercise political opinions and develop themselves fully in a democratic society.”[6]

Index of cases

[1] American Convention on Human Rights, Article 13.3

[2] Case 7778, Resolution Nº 16/82, Guatemala, Obispo Juan Gerardi, March 9, 1982.

[3] Case 9855, Resolution Nº 20/88, Haiti, Nicolas Estiverne, March 24, 1988.

[4] Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Ivcher Bronstein Case, Series C, Nº 74, Judgment of February 6, 2001.

[5] Id. para. 162.

[6] Id. para. 163.