Freedom of Expression

Press Release R 45/14


R 45/14


Washington, D.C., April 24, 2014. – On April 23, 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights presented its 2013 Annual Report to the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs. The Report includes the 2013 Annual Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

In its report, the Office of the Special Rapporteur underscores the most important progress made in the region in 2013 with respect to freedom of expression, and addresses existing challenges. In terms of progress, the Office of the Special Rapporteur expresses its satisfaction with the inclusion of the inter-American standards on access to information in the domestic legal systems of some States, whether through the enactment of special laws on access to information, or through the decisions of some national courts, as well as the furtherance of investigations and judicial proceedings that have clarified responsibility for crimes committed against journalists in prior years. The Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur also notes progress made in judicial and legislative areas, such as the repeal of criminal defamation [desacato] laws or criminal provisions that allowed for the prosecution of journalists for publishing information of public interest that might offend the authorities.

In particular, the Office of the Special Rapporteur calls attention to the violence against journalists in connection with the practice of their profession. During 2013, at least 18 people were murdered in the region for reasons that could be related to the exercise of their right to freedom of expression. In addition to these deplorable acts, there have been hundreds of reports of acts of violence, attacks, threats, and intimidation against journalists and media workers in retaliation for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression. In most of the cases, the acts of violence against journalists occurred after they reported on events related to organized crime or political or police corruption. These acts of violence have resulted in a significant increase in the self-censorship of journalists and the media as a mechanism for protecting their lives and safety. Nevertheless, with a few reported exceptions, this violence has not been provided with measures designed to bolster prevention efforts or prevent impunity for the crimes committed.

In this respect, the Office of the Special Rapporteur recommends that the States adopt appropriate mechanisms to prevent violence against journalists, including the public condemnation of all acts of violence; adopt effective protection measures to ensure the safety of persons exposed to special risks because of the exercise of their right to freedom of expression; conduct diligent, impartial, and effective investigations into the murders, assaults, threats, and acts of intimidation committed against journalists and media workers; prosecute and convict all perpetrators of such acts, and eliminate gender-based barriers to access to justice, among other measures.

The Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur also notes with concern the way in which some State authorities reacted to the demonstrations that took place in the Americas during 2013. In particular, the report describes dozens of arrests, threats, and attacks that were reportedly committed against journalists, media workers, demonstrators, and users of social networks who reported on the protests.

In this regard, the Office of the Special Rapporteur observes in its Report that it is necessary for the States to design regulatory frameworks that respect the exercise of social protest. The States must take account of the fact that when there are institutional frameworks that are not conducive to participation, or serious barriers preventing access to more traditional forms of mass communication, public protest can become the only medium that truly allows for those sectors of the population subject to discrimination or exclusion from the public discourse to have their point of view be heard and appreciated. Similarly, the authorities must provide journalists the maximum level of safeguards in order for them to do their jobs in the context of a public demonstration. They must ensure that journalists are not detained, threatened, or assaulted, and that their rights are not restricted in any way because they are practicing their profession. The State must not prohibit or criminalize live broadcasts of events, and must refrain from imposing measures that regulate or limit the free flow of information. Journalists must not be called to testify as witnesses before the courts, and the authorities must respect their right to protect the confidentiality of sources of information. Their work materials and equipment must not be destroyed or confiscated. It is also especially important for the authorities to have special protocols for protecting the press in circumstances of social unrest, and for them to instruct law enforcement on the role of the press in a democratic society.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur has verified with concern the existence of criminal provisions that continue to be inconsistent with the inter-American standards on the protection of freedom of expression and allow for the imposition of disproportionate measures that can have a chilling effect incompatible with a democratic society. In the same vein, the Office of the Special Rapporteur received information on the need to amend civil provisions to prevent the disproportionate use of pecuniary sanctions regardless of the application of the principle of actual malice.

In addition to the lawsuits against journalists, there is a troubling climate of polarization in some States of the region that has led to the stigmatization of critical journalists and media outlets by high-ranking government officials. It is of particular concern for the Office of the Special Rapporteur that, in some of these cases, such statements have been followed by violent acts or the opening of criminal or disciplinary proceedings that threaten to revoke the concessions, permits, and operating licenses of critical media. As the Office of the Special Rapporteur has noted, in those places where there is significant political or social polarization, this type of stigmatizing speech can lead to greater risks for journalists. In its report, the Office of the Special Rapporteur urges government authorities to take firm measures to build a climate of tolerance and respect in which all persons can express their thoughts and opinions without fear of being attacked, sanctioned, or stigmatized for doing so.

In the Report, the Office of the Special Rapporteur also refers to the existence of some proposed Internet regulations that do not take account of the special characteristics of this technology and, therefore, could unduly restrict freedom of expression. As indicated in the Report, the design of any measure that affects the use of the Internet must consider the potential effect of such a restriction on the ability of the web to guarantee and promote freedom of expression.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur expresses concern in its Report over the existence of surveillance and security programs and practices that could seriously infringe upon the universal rights to privacy and freedom of thought and expression. Consequently, it urges the respective authorities to revise the pertinent laws and modify their practices, in order to ensure that they are in line with international human rights principles.

The Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur also raises other markedly important issues related to freedom of expression, including the need to pass laws on community broadcasting so that a fair portion of the spectrum and the digital dividend is allocated to community radio stations and television channels. The assignment of these frequencies must take account of democratic criteria that guarantee equal opportunities for all individuals to access and operate these media under fair conditions, without disproportionate or unreasonable restrictions. The Office of the Special Rapporteur also mentions other matters of notable importance such as the need to regulate mechanisms that can be used as indirect censorship measures, such as the allocation of government advertising; the importance of enacting laws on access to information and adopting appropriate measures for the implementation of existing laws; and the need for the government broadcasting authorities in the member States to be independent technical bodies, among other issues.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur is grateful to the States, civil society organizations, and journalists for their assistance in the preparation of the Report, and in general, in carrying out its mandate.

The 2013 Annual Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur is available at this link: IA_2013_ENG _FINALweb.pdf

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.