Freedom of Expression

Press Release R40/11




Washington D.C., May 3, 2011.- On World Press Freedom Day, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recognizes the important progress made by some States in the hemisphere in combating impunity for crimes against journalists and in reforming their legal frameworks in the area of freedom of expression. In particular, the Office of the Special Rapporteur recognizes that in the majority of States in the region desacato (insult) laws have been repealed, and there is a clear tendency toward the decriminalization of crimes against honor in relation to critical information and opinions about the acts and omissions of public officials.

However, as indicated in the Office of the Special Rapporteur’s 2010 Annual Report, violence and harassment against journalists has unfortunately increased in some States. In 2010 alone, the Office of the Special Rapporteur registered the deaths of 26 media workers in the hemisphere that could be related to the exercise of freedom of expression, as well as numerous acts of aggression, threats and criminal prosecution related to the exercise of this right. There has also been an increase in the application of criminal sanctions and requests for disproportionate civil sanctions against those who, in the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of thought and expression, have criticized public officials.  Finally, fundamental challenges remain pending in the area of diversity and pluralism in the democratic debate. Not all States have adequate policies to prevent the existence of public or private monopolies in the ownership and/or control of communications media, nor have they adopted special measures to facilitate the access to the public debate of groups that suffer marginalization or discrimination.  

In light of this reality, the Office of the Special Rapporteur finds it necessary and opportune on this day to remind States in the hemisphere of the importance of implementing a series of recommendations already made in its 2010 Annual Report. These recommendations are necessary to make the right to freedom of expression real and effective in our hemisphere, and to prevent the repetition of grave acts that have the effect of diminishing democracy and the protection of human rights:

1.                                          Regarding violence against journalists and media outlets: 

a.                   Carry out serious, impartial, and effective investigations of the murders, attacks, threats, and acts of intimidation committed against journalists and media workers. These crimes must also be adequately investigated when they are committed with the aim of silencing the exercise of the right to freedom of expression of any other individual. With this in mind, States must adopt the necessary measures to achieve progress in the investigations, such as the creation of specialized units and special investigation protocols.  

b.                   Bring to trial, before impartial and independent tribunals, all those responsible for the murders, attacks, threats, and acts of intimidation based on the exercise of freedom of expression, and provide adequate reparations to the victims and their family members. 

c.                   Publicly condemn these acts to prevent actions that might encourage such crimes.

d.                   Adopt the measures necessary to guarantee the security of those who are attacked and threatened for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, whether these acts are committed by state agents or by private individuals. 

e.                   Adopt the necessary measures so that journalists in situations of risk who have been displaced or exiled can return to their homes in conditions of safety. If these persons cannot return, the States must adopt measures so that they can stay in their chosen place in conditions of dignity, with security measures, and with the necessary economic support to maintain their work and their family lives.

2.                                          Regarding criminalization of expression and promoting proportionality in the application of subsequent liability: 

a.                   Promote the repeal of contempt (desacato) laws, whatever their form, given that these norms are contrary to the American Convention on Human Rights and restrict public debate, an essential element of the practice of democracy. 

b.                   Promote the modification of laws on criminal defamation with the objective of eliminating the use of criminal proceedings to protect honor and reputation when information is disseminated about issues of public interest, about public officials, or about candidates for public office.

c.                   Promote the modification of laws on insult to ideas or institutions with the aim of eliminating the use of criminal proceedings to inhibit free democratic debate about all issues.

 d.                   Establish clear regulations that guarantee the legitimate exercise of social protest and that impede the application of disproportionate restrictions that can be used to inhibit or suppress critical or dissenting expression.

e.                   The protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest. In addition, in these cases, it must be proven that in disseminating the news, the social communicator had the specific intent to inflict harm, was fully aware that false news was disseminated, or acted with gross negligence in efforts to determine the truth or falsity of such news. 

3.                                          Regarding statements of high-level State authorities based on editorial positions:

a.                   Encourage democratic debate through public declarations, practices, and policies that promote tolerance and respect for journalists and communicators, whatever their thoughts or ideas.  

b.                   Refrain from making public statements that can encourage violence against individuals because of their opinions. In particular, avoid statements that could stigmatize journalists, media outlets, and human rights defenders.

4.                                          Regarding prior censorship: 

a.                   Eliminate any norm that enables prior censorship by any state organ, and also any prior condition that may imply censorship of freedom of expression, such as prior requirements of truthfulness, timeliness, or impartiality of information.

5.                              Regarding discriminatory distribution of government advertising:  

a.                   Abstain from using public power to punish or reward media and journalists in relation to their editorial stance or coverage of certain information, whether through the discriminatory and arbitrary assignment of government advertising or other indirect means aimed at impeding communication and the circulation of ideas and opinions. States should also regulate these matters in accordance with the inter-American standards laid out in the reports of the Office of the Special Rapporteur.

6.                              Regarding progress on access to information: 

a.                   Continue promulgating laws that permit effective access to information and complementary norms that regulate the exercise of this right, in conformity with the international standards in this area.

b.                   Guarantee effectively, both de jure and de facto, the right of habeas data of all citizens, this being an essential element of freedom of expression and the democratic system. 

c.                   Encourage the effective and efficient implementation of norms on access to information, adequately training public employees and informing the citizenry in order to eradicate the culture of secrecy and provide citizens the tools to effectively monitor state activities, public administration and the prevention of corruption, all essential to the democratic process.

7.                              Regarding the allocation of radio frequencies: 

a.                   Adopt the measures necessary to prevent public or private monopolies in the ownership and/or control of communications media, in accordance with international standards, including Principle 12 of the IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression.  

b.                   Adopt legislation to ensure transparent, public, and equitable criteria for the allocation of radio frequencies and the new digital dividend. This legislation must take into account the current situation of concentration of the ownership of communications media, and assign the administration of the radio electric spectrum to an independent organ, subject to due process and judicial oversight. 

c.                   Promote effective policies and practices that permit access to information and the equal participation of all sectors of society so that their needs, opinions, and interests will be contemplated in the design and adoption of public policy decisions. Additionally, adopt legislative and other measures that are necessary to guarantee pluralism, including antitrust laws.

d.                   Legislate in the area of community radio broadcasting, in a manner that will produce an equitable division of the spectrum and the digital dividend to community radio stations and channels. The allocation of these frequencies must take into account democratic criteria that guarantee equal opportunities to all individuals in the access and operation of these media in conditions of equality, without disproportionate or unreasonable restrictions, and in conformity with Principle 12 of the Declaration of Principles and the "Joint Declaration on Diversity in Broadcasting" (2007).  

e.                   Launch regional efforts to regulate the State's authority to control and supervise the allocation of public goods or resources related directly or indirectly with the exercise of freedom of expression. On this point, the task is to adjust institutional frameworks with two central objectives: first, to eliminate the possibility that State authority is used to reward or punish media outlets according to their editorial positions, and second, to foster pluralism and diversity in the public debate.