Media Center



February 3, 2010 - Washington, DC

I would like to state, first, that I do not observe major discrepancies as regards the importance of freedom of expression, in all its forms, in democracy. Naturally, it would be a problem if there were – that someone would think or proclaim the contrary – because it is enshrined in our Inter-American Democratic Charter, in numerous declarations of the General Assembly, and in the establishment of the Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression, which was reaffirmed by the 1998 Summit of Presidents and Heads of State and of government held in Santiago, Chile – which I was fortunate enough to attend. I believe that freedom of expression is an essential element of democracy; above all, because if the people cannot express their opinions freely, the other rights cannot be realized. The right to vote, the right to assembly and all the other rights that shape democracy would have no relevance without freedom of expression.

I believe in this right, and I believe that all those present also believe in it. On a lighter note, I can say that if everyone did not believe in freedom of expression, we would probably have asked for the microphones to be disconnected or for some of the things that have been said to be eliminated from the proceedings of this session. Freedom of expression allows us to make very strong comments about other people – and everyone has the right to do so – with one constraint: that we do not commit slander or libel. I have exercised this right many times and I believe that every public figure has the right to do so.

I will not expand upon the theoretical content of a concept that we all believe to be fundamental. I believe it more important to say that, today, this right faces serious threats of different kinds.

The tendency or the willingness to create obstacles to the use of freedom of expression is always a serious threat. Legal or illegal obstacles, abuse of bureaucratic restrictions, the presumption to dictate what is true and what is not true, who may speak and who may not speak, or simply the fact of preventing someone from speaking. All these are ways of jeopardizing freedom of expression. I believe that, in principle, people should never be prevented from saying what they have to say; if it is considered that they are not truthful, there are ways to say this or to criticize.

I also believe that freedom of expression must be for everyone. Just as the right to speak cannot be restricted, we must also be concerned that the enjoyment of this right is not discriminatory and, hence, that the public authority also has the right to establish norms that ensure pluralism and freedom of expression.

Moreover, I have never opposed limits to ownership of the media. Especially when, as occurs in some countries of our region, a single individual can own all the television channels, or when newspaper monopolies reach an inacceptable size while other media are not viable.
I believe that both aspects are valid. We are used to confronting one argument with the other and while one person says: “I believe in freedom of expression,” the other responds: “but a monopoly exists.” I am against restricting anyone’s opinion, but I am also against monopolies and I do not consider that these two positions are incompatible. We must be able to assert both.

Another threat to freedom of expression that few have mentioned here, and that I cannot fail to mention, is violence. Nowadays, a great deal of violence is perpetrated against those who communicate information. In many countries, journalists are not only harassed, but also imprisoned and even murdered, a matter that has been of concern to our Human Rights Commission. The violence that organized crime uses against journalists, against communicators, is also an issue that cannot be absent in a discussion on freedom of expression.

Nowadays, much is said about the need to examine the problem of freedom of expression on the Internet: what can and cannot be said on the Internet. I acknowledge that when I see an opinion with regard to myself, I try to read the original version because, in the blog, it is accompanied by the insults that many of those that follow these sites direct at me. But this is normal; we use the Internet because we believe that everyone has the right to express an opinion and to speak; however, these are issues that I am sure merit discussion.

I was happy to hear what the Ambassador of Guatemala told us; it would be useful to have a more productive and thorough discussion or conversation on this matter with the presence of our Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Currently, she is discussing a joint declaration on the issue of freedom of expression to be issued by the United Nations Special Rapporteurship, together with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and the Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States. In other words, we are not the only ones with this institutional framework.

I believe that this is a matter that requires analysis; we have nothing to gain by closing our eyes to it. A major discussion on the question is underway in our countries; as the Ambassador of Ecuador has said, legislation is currently being discussed in several countries, and the issues are generally the same: they relate to the right to express an opinion, non-discrimination in the expression of opinions, limitation of the possibility of controlling the media, the problems of violence and others.

Fortunately, the OAS is also discussing the matter. I believe that the major change in international law following the Second World War is that, prior to the war, it related to regulation of the relations among the States and nothing more. Today, international law relates to corruption, to substantive human rights, and to numerous other questions on our agenda; this is the reality. This is an aspect of human rights where it is important to apply the principles – the principles exist – and the International Human Rights Commission has issued an important declaration on this matter that is interesting to examine, because it enshrines all the principles.
In the OAS – and this should be underscored – we have mechanisms to deal with these issues. And they exist precisely to avoid something that several Ambassadors have referred to, in particular the Ambassador of Guatemala: politicizing the debate, instead of analyzing the fundamental rights and principles we are defending. We have the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression, which, I repeat, although it was established by the Commission was subsequently ratified at a presidential Summit. Consequently, the Commission, the Court and the Rapporteurship exist because you, the States – which, as the Ambassador of Panama has indicated, are over and above governments, because States are permanent – have decided to create those mechanisms to deal with these issues. This does not mean that they cannot be dealt with by the Permanent Council; but these are the specific bodies that we have and you chose them. All the countries take part in the elections of the Commission and the Court; even the countries that have not ratified the Statute participate in the election of the members of the Court. Consequently, we must learn to respect and value our institutions.

At times I ask myself: “why not intervene and do something?” I don’t because I have the obligation to support and defend the decisions of the institutions that you have established to this end. You elected four of the seven current members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. For the second time in the history of the Commission, the majority of its members were elected in the same year. This majority has been elected recently and the other members must be elected in 2012 and 2013 (and it is the first time in its history that three members of the Commission are women). You elected the members and we cannot disentitle them; rather we must allow them to fulfill their functions. This has been my decision. If the OAS has created bodies and mechanisms, why not let them carry out their mandate? Afterwards we can express our differences with the decisions they adopt if we consider it necessary.

No one said that it would be easy. I know that some countries that are present have differences of opinion with the Human Rights Commission. I myself, more than once, have privately given the members of the Commission my opinion with regard to something they have said that I have not agreed with; but this is the institution we have created, and the day it ceases to exist the Organization will lose its meaning. Consequently I defend it and, therefore, I am not going to embark, once again, upon the discussion concerning how the commissioners have acted in each situation. Of course the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also addressed itself to Roberto Micheletti and the Supreme Court of Honduras to ask about several cases of human rights violations that were being reported. This does not mean that the Commission recognized the government of Roberto Micheletti: it had to ask. This is a Commission that receives all kinds of complaints and all these complaints are processed; it examines what is happening in each case and this does not mean that it recognizes an authority; it is merely performing the task with which we have entrusted it. Hence, even the Inter-American Democratic Charter, when it refers to the suspension of States that have interrupted the democratic order, states clearly that this does not mean that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights does not continue working with these States. Nor does it mean that we think that everything that the Commission says is correct; however, it is the mechanism that has been created and we will respect it.

Regarding the heated discussion of these principles, the enthusiasm with which we are debating, I wish to recall what a President – specifically, the President of Venezuela – once said: “We are Latin and Caribbean peoples and our discussions become heated at times which does not mean that we cannot reach agreement”; he said this at a very crucial point of a meeting. I believe that we should try to reach agreement even though our discussions are heated at times, because freedom of expression is an element without which this Organization would have no meaning; and we should always accord due respect to those institutions that are best known and valued by the international community, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression. This is something that we cannot throw overboard.