Freedom of Expression

1 - Introduction

1.                   The past year has been a period of transition for the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, as the leadership of the Office has passed from one Rapporteur to another. As this report is being completed, my term as Special Rapporteur is coming to a close and the new Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Eduardo Bertoni, is taking office. In this time of transition, it seems appropriate to pause to reflect on the purpose and the accomplishments of the Office, as well as the challenges it will face in the future.


2.                   The Office has a permanent mandate, assigned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, designed to promote and protect the full observance of freedom of expression and information in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in the consolidation and advancement of the democratic system and in ensuring that other human rights are protected and violations reported. This mandate, however permanent, is also dynamic, allowing the Office, under the leadership of the Special Rapporteur, to respond to the needs that arise in democracies.


3.                   It has been stated repeatedly that for the continued development of a stable democracy, elections in themselves are not enough. Other elements inherent to democratic society must also be fostered, such as recognition and respect for human rights, effective and independent legislative and judicial branches of government, a party system that facilitates open lines of communication between citizens and leaders, an active civil society, and, above all, wide-ranging freedom of expression and access to information to ensure that all citizens have the information they need to make decisions.


4.                   All of these elements are interconnected. Democracy has led to greater freedom of expression in comparison to previous decades when many countries in the Americas were under the rule of dictatorships or authoritarian governments. However, in many Latin American democracies today, the public institutions designed to act as checks on authorities and individuals are still weak. For example, in many cases the Judicial Power fails to investigate situations brought to their attention and punish guilty parties. Additionally, public institutions have been weakened due, in part, to high levels of corruption.  In countries affected by such problems, the press has become the main check on authorities and individuals alike by bringing to light illegal or abusive acts previously unnoticed, ignored or perpetuated by official control bodies. In doing so, the press, in turn, advances democracy through the exercise of freedom of expression.


5.                   It is in this dynamic context of democratic change and development that the Office of the Special Reporter evaluates freedom of expression in the hemisphere today. There are achievements and there are setbacks as the protection of freedom of expression affects and is affected by changes in other factors essential to democracy, including free elections, respect for human rights, and independent branches of government.


6.                   One of the most significant achievements of the Office of the Special Rapporteur in the first three years of its operation is the greater awareness of freedom of expression issues it has generated in the region, bringing freedom of expression to the forefront of the issues being discussed in the inter-American system. Due in part to the Office's work, some states have repealed laws that were restrictive of freedom of expression. In other countries, bills to repeal such restrictive laws have been introduced into the legislature, demonstrating an increasing recognition of the problems these laws create. Additionally, laws that are beneficial to freedom of expression, particularly those pertaining to the right to access to information, have recently been passed or are under consideration in several countries. Since the Office was created, the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have promulgated a number of important freedom of expression decisions and issued precautionary or provisional measures to protect the rights of journalists in a number of cases. Additionally, there are currently over 40 cases pending before the Commission relating to freedom of expression.


7.                   There have been setbacks as well as successes in the past three years. Since the beginning of 1998, the year the Office was started, at least 39 journalists have been murdered as a result of their work, making the Americas one of the most dangerous areas in the world to practice journalism. The numbers of journalists killed have not always declined from year to year. In fact, in 2001, there were more journalists murdered as a result of their work than in each of the previous two years.


8.                   Several states in the region passed laws that placed additional limitations on freedom of expression, such as laws requiring membership in a professional association for the practice of journalism. Other states proposed legislation that, if passed, would prove damaging to freedom of expression. Numerous journalists throughout the region are in jail or facing legal actions as a result of their work.


9.                   In spite of the setbacks, however, I have no doubt that the process begun by the Office of the Special Rapporteur is an essential one that will produce even greater benefits in the future. The Office will continue to build upon the base of knowledge and experience of its first three years. It now has a network in place for the sharing of information, technical assistance and cooperation with non-governmental organizations, members of civil society, journalists and governments throughout the region. The Office has compiled jurisprudence on freedom of expression from various legal systems and developed mechanisms for guidance in the interpretation of Article 13 of the American Convention, such as the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, that will be applied to future cases. The Office has also established relationships with its counterparts in the United Nations and regional human rights systems in Europe, Africa and Asia to exchange strategies and collaborate on issues of common concern. Using this as a framework, the Office of the Special Rapporteur will continue to strive for the advancement of freedom of expression in the region in the years ahead.  


10.               The three and a half years that I have spent as Special Rapporteur have been exciting, challenging and productive. The successes of my Office could not have been achieved without the collaboration of members of civil society, human rights defenders, and governments throughout the region. I thank them and everyone who has contributed to the hemispheric struggle to promote and protect freedom of expression. Most especially, I thank the journalists who through their dedication to informing the public, enable democracy to function.