Freedom of Expression

Press release R192/22

AAuthorities and candidates for public office in Brazil are called upon to protect public debate and freedom of expression

August 30, 2022

Washington, D.C.- The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calls on electoral authorities, political parties, and persons holding or aspiring to hold elected office in Brazil to protect public debate and the observance of human rights, in accordance with their special responsibilities in the exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

A few days before the beginning of the electoral campaign in Brazil, this Office has received reports on the worsening of political polarization and its impact on public debate. In this context, the Special Rapporteur’s Office has become aware of several stigmatizing statements and verbal attacks against the press and human rights defenders by political leaders. Likewise, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteur’s Office have received information on speeches that aim to cast doubt on the electoral process and democratic institutions without addressing verified and verifiable information; speeches that could exacerbate or encourage discrimination and violence; and statements that challenge the enforcement of judicial decisions or that have the potential to promote the disregard of electoral results, without the provision of unequivocal evidence to support it.

This type of speeches are inserted in a scenario of allegations about the deterioration of guarantees to exercise the right to freedom of expression and citizen participation in Brazil. In this sense, the Rapporteur’s Office has been informed of an increase in politically motivated violence, which would manifest itself, for example, in threats to the life and integrity of women who exercise parliamentary functions at different levels, in addition to a generalized environment of self-censorship, especially among groups in vulnerable situations. The Special Rapporteur’s Office notes that on August 1, 2022, the Superior Electoral Tribunal and the Attorney General's Office signed a "Protocol for Joint Action in Confronting Political Gender Violence", which includes "combating political violence against women".

The Rapporteur’s Office reiterates that expressions on political issues, including those that may be critical, offensive or shocking, should be especially protected during electoral periods, since freedom of expression is an essential tool for the formation of public opinion, which strengthens the political contest and allows for greater transparency in these contexts. However, even in these periods there are limits to the right to freedom of expression. In particular, persons exercising public functions and candidates for public office are called upon to ensure the integrity and quality of public deliberation, and to ensure that their pronouncements 'do not exacerbate tensions related to elections, nor have the potential to harm the rights of individuals.

In the light of the previous considerations, and in accordance with the standards on freedom of expression in electoral contexts, this Office points out that:

1.     Article 13.5 of the ACHR prohibits "propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to violence or any other similar illegal action against any person or group of persons for any reason, including race, color, religion, language or national origin...", which must be sanctioned by the competent authorities. According to the UN Rabat Plan of Action, for a speech to be considered hate speech, a contextual - and not semantic - proof of the manifestation is required, based on the (1) social and political context; (2) the category of the speaker; (3) the intention to incite the audience against a particular group; (4) the content and form of the speech; (5) the extent of its dissemination; and (6) the likelihood of causing harm, including imminent harm of speech allegedly inciting violence. These elements should be especially ascertained during election periods.

2.     There are speeches that negatively affect public deliberation as they contribute to the stigmatization and marginalization of groups in vulnerable situations, such as women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant population, LGBTI people, people with disabilities and people in a situation of human mobility, among others. Discrimination impacts people's ability to fully exercise their right to freedom of expression and to participate in the civic space. The speeches of political leaders -especially those who exercise public functions- cannot ignore or contradict human rights. Democratic and human rights convictions demand that those who participate in the electoral contest recognize that no person should be discriminated against for political reasons and that all should be treated with dignity.

3.     Political leaders should distance themselves from any discourse that sends permissive messages of violence during the electoral contest, including those that activate, encourage, accentuate, or exacerbate situations of discrimination, hostility, intolerance or animosity.

4.     Persons holding or aspiring to hold elected office are called upon to counteract intolerance and discrimination and to promote cultural understanding and respect for diversity, taking advantage of their high office and the scope of their speeches. Considering that on many occasions electoral contexts are characterized by the intensification of polarization and social conflicts, public leaders are called upon to channel such tensions through dialogue, ensuring full respect for the rule of law, the decision of the electorate and human rights.

5.     Criticism of the performance of the public authorities, the proposals on the functioning of the State and reflections on democratic and electoral institutionality are issues of public interest that should be open to the scrutiny of the citizenry. However, political leaders, especially state authorities, must act with greater diligence than any other citizen when pronouncing on these matters, which includes the duty to reasonably verify the facts on which their opinions and criticisms are based. The statements made by public officials and political leaders who do not adhere to these principles may encourage the dissemination of false information.

6.     Political leaders should refrain from disseminating false information knowing it to be false. Instead, they have an obligation to ensure to the maximum extent possible that their statements are truthful, substantiated, and accurate. Candidates and political parties must take measures to prevent the dissemination of false, misleading, or dubious information and must correct information in a timely manner when they become aware of false or misleading content.

7.     Access to information is a citizen's right and contributes to the formation of the collective will expressed in the vote. It is essential that the candidates are open to the scrutiny of the population and voluntarily attend interviews and other spaces for debate on the different political projects. The Rapporteur’s Office recalls that political debate is essential for the consolidation of democratic societies.

8.     Journalism fulfills the crucial function of channeling public debate between public representatives and citizens. Political leaders should refrain from stigmatizing or threatening journalists, and from undermining respect for the independence of the media. At press conferences, they should treat participants with respect and ensure that they have an equal opportunity to ask questions.

9.     Political leaders should remember that Article 15 of the ACHR protects the right to peaceful and unarmed assembly. In this regard, those who exercise public functions and those who aspire to hold public office should be especially mindful of their role as guarantors of the human rights of people who participate in social demonstrations. Stigmatizing and criminalizing remarks against demonstrators can lead to the escalation of episodes of violence and human rights violations.

10.  The IACHR and its Special Rapporteur’s Office recognize the solidity of democratic institutions in Brazil. A central element of the rule of law is respect for judicial decisions and the decisions of the respective electoral authorities. The exercise of freedom of expression does not authorize those who occupy or aspire to occupy elected office to disregard such decisions. The claims or questions that may exist regarding such decisions must be evacuated through the appropriate institutional channels provided by law, giving priority to true facts and verified or factually verifiable information, and respecting democratic institutions. Accordingly, political leaders, especially high-ranking public authorities, must ensure that their pronouncements "do not constitute a form of interference or pressure detrimental to judicial independence or may induce or suggest actions by other authorities that violate the independence or affect the freedom of the judge," as the Inter-American Court has stated.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.