Media Center



May 4, 2009 - Washington, DC

When we speak of freedom of expression we are, in fact, speaking of democracy. We know that democracy is a system that only exists if all its parts exist and that each of these parts is equally important. However, I would risk saying that if, among all the components of democracy, there was one without which the others would lose their meaning, it would be freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is, above all, the necessary complement to freedom of thought and cannot be separated from it. To proclaim freedom of thought – that is the capacity of the individual to develop his own opinions and beliefs – while at the same time preventing these opinions and beliefs from being expressed, equals denying the freedom to think.

Freedom of expression is, also, information and knowledge. All the other freedoms can be granted, but if their beneficiaries, the people, are unaware of them, it is as if they do not exist. Freedom of expression is essential to guarantee adequate political participation, to achieve real inclusion of the different sectors of the population, and to exercise democratic control of the actions of the public powers. Freedom of expression permits the individual to form his own political opinions and to compare them with those of other individuals, to evaluate freely his adhesion to one or other offer within the political spectrum, and to take informed decisions on matters that concern him.

Freedom of thought and expression is one and the same thing, but at the same time it is multiple in its manifestations. It belongs to the individual, not to the public powers. Hence, it is a right of all citizens and it is expressed in all spheres of social activity. Consequently, to think and express oneself freely is a right that it must be possible to exercise through both the mass media and within the family circle; in academia, but also at work; within political parties and religious establishments; within trade unions, but also within military institutions. In all these spheres there is an individual aspect that, in some cases, can even be predominant; but, in all of them, there is also a public aspect that affects and influences the rest of society. Hence, no aspect of this freedom may be curtailed for any reason.

Based on the above, freedom of expression is not only an attribute of democracy, but a fundamental human right. Its individual dimension is expressed as the right of each individual to express his thoughts and to disseminate information without any impediment, and its social or collective dimension, as the right of other individuals to know the thoughts of others and to receive information.

The exercise of this right, despite seeming simple, obvious and natural, has never been thus. To the contrary: achieving a point where freedom of expression is accepted and practiced by society has always involved efforts, sacrifices, and frequently martyrs who are not always adequately remembered.
From the time of the philosophers of classic Greece (which created democracy), who were often mistreated, exiled and frequently executed for disseminating their ideas, through the revolutionary France of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which, in 1793, approved a law according to which authors of documents urging non-compliance with State laws and orders could be condemned to death, up until our own time in which writers can be condemned to death for ideas expressed in a novel, throughout history those in power have tended to consider that the action of expressing oneself and communicating ideas and feelings to others is dangerous and, therefore, must be suppressed.

Our region has been no exception to this phenomenon. In recent times, dictatorships and civil war resulted in grave situations of violation of freedom of thought and expression. The dictators, who were well aware of the power of information, closed the media and established methods of prior censorship. The media that risked providing information ran the risk of being silenced, and this was often the case.

Fortunately, the situation of democracy in our region has changed radically over recent years. Actually, the Governments of all the States that are active members of the OAS have been elected democratically and, in many cases, those elections have resulted in the transfer of power between political forces that held entirely opposing views, without this fact having consequences that affected democracy.

Moreover, the Constitution of most of these States – or their special laws – enshrines freedom of expression as a fundamental right and endows it with a series of enhanced guarantees designed to ensure its full exercise. Also, a considerable number of OAS Member States have derogated the crimes of contempt or disrespect of public authorities and some have amended their criminal laws to avoid criminalizing critical or dissenting statements. The process of incorporating laws on access to information has been truly dynamic, and although impunity continues to be a serious problem, in some of these States legislative, administrative and judicial measures have been taken to deal with it, creating systems of protection for journalists.

Despite all these advances, however, there is still a long way to go to achieve the full exercise of freedom of expression on our continent. One of the most reprehensible problems, which requires immediate action, is violence against journalists and the media. In 2008, at least nine social communicators were murdered in the region for reasons that could be connected to the exercise of their work. Murder is the most brutal and violent form of violating the right to freedom of expression and impeding the dissemination of information and the free flow of ideas.

In addition to these regrettable acts, during the same year, there were at least 200 reports of threats and acts of violence and intimidation against journalists and the media, presumably linked to the exercise of freedom of expression. Such crimes and threats arise from diverse sources. Fortunately, those that originate from the powers of the State are on the decline but, unfortunately, those that originate from the new de facto powers that oppress our society are on the increase. And organized crime is the principal one among them.

A 2008 study on the murder of journalists during the 1995-2005 period published by the OAS Special Rapporteurship identified 157 murders committed in 19 countries of the region for reasons that could be related to their work in journalism. The same Special Rapporteurship was able to observe that, despite the existence of diverse judicial decisions that identify and condemn the perpetrators, the investigations undertaken had been excessively slow and reveal serious deficiencies that have precluded the clarification of the facts and the punishment of those responsible. In only 32 of the 157 cases studied had there been some type of conviction.

The impunity of the murders, attacks and threats frequently gives rise to a disturbing situation of self-censorship. When the State fails to ensure their safety, journalists have to choose between continuing to risk their life – and often that of their families – and abandoning their investigations and ceasing to report on certain issues. This has a significant impact not only on the freedom of expression of the communicators, but also on that of society, which no longer has access to information that concerns it. The democratic process is also affected, because democratic control cannot function, at least not fully, when self-censorship exists.

Another issue that should be a cause for concern is that of criminal proceedings against journalists and their deprivation of liberty. I should explain that such criminal proceedings are possible because many States in the region have not adapted their criminal laws to the relevant international standards. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that the crime of contempt or disrespect for public authorities, which awards special protection to the honor and reputation of public officials, is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression, because, in a democratic society, public officials, instead of receiving this special protection, should be exposed to a greater degree of criticism that allows for public debate and democratic control of their actions.

Furthermore, with regard to the crimes of slander, defamation and libel, the standards of the Inter-American System for the protection of Human Rights has established that, in a democratic society, it is disproportionate that offenses against honor and reputation arising from the dissemination of information on matters of public interest be subject to criminal sanctions. Criminal proceedings as a consequence of the dissemination of information of public interest discourage investigation and discussion of relevant issues for society and inhibit criticism, which has a negative impact on democracy. The protection of honor and reputation in these cases should be ensured by proportionate civil sanctions, and by the right to rectification or reply.

It is true, as I mentioned at the outset, that most States in our region have derogated the laws of contempt or disrespect for public authorities, and some have even amended their criminal laws on slander and libel with regard to matters of public interest. It is also true that, in some places in which these norms persist, the courts have adopted restrictive criteria as regards criminal proceedings against journalists and communicators based on the emission or dissemination of declarations or information of public interest. However, criminal complaints against journalists or communicators for the publication of opinions or information related to cases of corruption or matters of public interest are still normal in many of our countries, and the complainants are, often, public servants.

In most of the cases filed during the past year, the criminal proceedings were dismissed, but the journalists were under the pressure of being subjected to this type of proceeding, of having to pay their lawyers and of the restrictive measures that might accompany such proceedings. In other cases, the judges convicted the journalists and, on at least three occasions, the criminal convictions were implemented partially or entirely. The effect of these situations could be to silence journalists, and thus they are incompatible with democratic societies.

There are also other more subtle ways of putting pressure on media with critical editorial lines and, unfortunately, the public powers in our region use them. These are indirect methods, much more difficult to detect and denounce, because they are carried out under the appearance of the legitimate exercise of power. This occurs, for example, when, under relative equality of conditions, all or most of the official publicity is awarded to media that support the Government. That same respect for legality, but disrespect for democratic norms, can also be found when legal governmental powers are applied with the sole purpose of silencing adverse media.

But the State is not the only source of restrictions to freedom of expression; the concentration of the ownership of the media is also, and in a very determinant way. In situations of this type, often the population does not hear all the points of view on the different issues that concern it; obviously, this does not contribute to the effective exercise of freedom of expression and democracy, which implies pluralism and diversity.

The Inter-American Court and Commission on Human Rights have stated clearly that monopolies or oligopolies in the ownership and control of the media seriously jeopardize the right to freedom of expression. Consequently, States are obliged to subject the ownership and control of the media to general anti-monopoly laws to avoid formal or real concentration, which restricts the plurality and diversity that ensure the full exercise of the citizen’s right to information.

Furthermore, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has affirmed that the assignment of radio and television stations must take into consideration democratic criteria that ensure real equal opportunities of access for all. In this regard, it has considered that recognition of the so-called community radio is essential and has indicated, for example, that competitive bidding processes based solely on economic criteria or that award concessions without granting a fair opportunity to all sectors are incompatible with democracy and with the right to freedom of expression and information guaranteed in the American Convention on Human Rights and in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression.

The right to be informed, the other facet of the right to express oneself, also suffers restrictions on our continent. The principal constraints are the obstacles to access to information generated or controlled by the State. In many States in our region a culture of secrecy and lack of transparency reigns. It appears that public institutions are not organized structurally to be able to implement the citizens’ right to information. Public officials tend to manage all information as secret and, in general, citizens are unaware of their right to be informed of the actions of those who govern them and those who represent them.

A couple of years ago, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued, for the first time, a judgment in which it recognized that access to information forms part of the right to freedom of expression. The judgment referred to important principles on this matter that should be incorporated into the law; they included: maximum dissemination; obligation of the States to be governed by the principles of publicity and transparency in the management of public affairs so that the people could exercise democratic control over them; existence of a positive obligation of the State to provide the information that is requested of it; obligation of the States not to require from those requesting information that they prove a direct interest in it, and obligation of the States to provide a founded response in those situation in which it may limit access to the information requested.

I can say, as a conclusion to this brief overview of the actual characteristics of freedom of expression on our continent, that although we have made considerable progress over recent years – because we have also advanced significantly towards the consolidation of democracy – we cannot feel proud of what we have achieved yet. Because we have to admit that there is still much more to be done.

Evidently we have a major challenge before us, but it is a magnificent challenge and, above all, a challenge in which we can succeed if we undertake the task together – communicators, Governments and civil society. And, above all, if we undertake this effort with the conviction that it is only through the free expression and circulation of ideas that we can construct a free society; that only through open discussion and information without barriers will it be possible to find answers to our most crucial problems, create consensuses, allow growth to benefit all, exercise social justice and make progress towards achieving equality.

An important part of the effort, perhaps the most important, falls on those who have assumed the noble task of communicating. Hence, I wish all the members of the Inter-American Association of Broadcasters every success in their permanent effort to make freedom of expression a daily practice in our societies.

Thanks you very much