Media Center



June 18, 2007 - Washington, DC

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you, representatives of the Caribbean journalistic community, to this Seminar. I hope that your presence here will help us strengthen ties between Caribbean journalists and the Organization of American States. Over the next couple of days you will hear all about our programs and our mandates as an organization. At the same time, we want to hear your views and ideas for how we can strengthen our relationship and, through you, our communication with the Caribbean people. We hope that, at the conclusion of this seminar, we will have come to a better understanding and will have established ties of effective cooperation between the community you represent and our Organization.

For the Organization of American States, of all the elements that make up democracy, freedom of expression and the right to information stand out as fundamental. Freedom of expression is a necessary corollary of freedom of thought and cannot be separated from it. Proclaiming freedom of thought, while at the same time stifling the expression of opinions and beliefs, is tantamount to denying the very freedom to think.

Freedom of expression is information and knowledge. All other freedoms may be granted, but if they are not known by those they are intended for, they might as well not exist. Freedom of expression is essential to guarantee adequate political participation, to achieve effective inclusion of the different segments of the population, and to exercise democratic control over the actions of the authorities. Freedom of expression enables people to form their own political opinions, to compare them with those of other people, to freely weigh their adherence to one position or another in the political spectrum, and to take informed decisions on matters that concern them.

Neither states nor any of us have the right to be stingy in our defense of the freedoms of thought and expression, inasmuch as these freedoms attach to human beings and not to government. It is our obligation as human beings to promote them in all spheres of social activity: in the mass media, as well in the workplace, academia, political parties, labor unions, and families. The obligation of leaders, for their part, is to further them in the public arena, translating them into laws and regulations that will guarantee their observance. It is not only a matter of refraining from restricting freedom of expression: it is essential that states design and implement public policies aimed at guaranteeing the monitoring of this right through specific laws.

Censorship and punishment of journalists and the media are still possible in our region because many OAS member states have not brought their criminal legislation into line with international standards in this area. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has indicated that the criminal offense of desacato, which grants special protection to the honor and reputation of public officials in some of our member states, is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. That is because, in a democratic society public officials should not receive such special protection but rather be exposed to a higher degree of scrutiny so as to foster public debate and democratic oversight of their conduct.

A more complex issue is how to handle forms of indirect pressure that are within the purview of the legitimate exercise of public responsibilities. For example, this is the case when, under relatively equal conditions, all or most official news coverage is made available to media that support the government, or when legal government powers are used to silence the opposition media.

In these cases, what is at issue is neither the letter of the law nor the right of the state to enforce it but rather the fact that, when this is done, a clear signal is being sent to the rest of the media, causing self-censorship and fear.

Moreover, in our region, the state is not the only source of restrictions on freedom of expression. Another, very important source is the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few. What happens frequently in these circumstances is that people are not given all the points of view regarding matters of concern to them. Clearly this does not contribute to the effective exercise of freedom of expression and democracy, which involves pluralism and diversity. It is almost universally accepted today that concentration and monopolies in media ownership and control, regardless of whether at the hands of states, individuals, or businesses, impair pluralism, which is a basic component of freedom of expression. For example, the European Parliament recently said that “democracy would be threatened if any single voice, with the power to propagate a single viewpoint, were to become too dominant ….” This danger exists today with regard to media ownership in various countries of our Hemisphere.

One of the essential components of the right to information is access to public information. No society can claim to be pluralist, tolerant, and rooted in justice and mutual respect if it fails to guarantee its citizens the right to elicit information regarding the work of public institutions, so that they can contribute to their improvement and thereby enhance the potential for democratic governance. This is a principle that the states of the Hemisphere must not only share; they are also obliged to abide by it. That is what is required of them by the commitment they entered into on September 11, 2001, when they signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Article 4 of which states: “Transparency in government activities, probity, responsible public administration on the part of governments, respect for social rights, and freedom of expression and of the press are essential components of the exercise of democracy.”

A recent judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recognized that access to information forms part of the right to freedom of expression. In that judgment, the Court made reference to important principles on this subject, which should be incorporated into legislation, including: maximum disclosure; the obligation of states to be governed by the principles of publicity and transparency in public affairs so that individuals may exercise democratic control over them; the existence of a positive obligation of states to provide the information requested of them; the duty of states not to demand from a person requesting information proof of a direct interest in it; and the obligation of the state to explain its reasons in any cases in which it may restrict access to the information requested.

In speaking of freedom of expression and to an audience of journalists, I would be remiss in not also expressing my concern over the mounting violence against journalists in the Hemisphere. During the past year, at least 20 people were killed in the Americas for reasons that could be related to their work as journalists, and four more have gone missing. Murdering or assaulting journalists because of their work is the most brutal means of restricting freedom of expression. Nonetheless, I should point out that, unlike in the past, this practice is now perpetrated in most cases not by government agents but by criminal groups that consider freedom of expression or information a threat to their activities. Our Organization has demanded a “swift and effective” investigation into all these cases, a demand that I reiterate today: it is the duty of the governments of the Americas to carefully investigate murders, attacks, and threats targeting journalists and to punish the perpetrators.

In conclusion, I should repeat that I am firmly convinced that it is only through the free expression and circulation of ideas that a free society can be created. Open debate and unrestricted information, which include frank scrutiny of public measures and particularly government activities, will facilitate consensus, ensure that the benefits of economic growth reach everyone, and work hand in hand with equity and social justice.

This is the task that lies ahead, and you, who have taken on the important role of reporting the news, have a major part to play in carrying it out.

Thank you very much and, once again, welcome.