Freedom of Expression

Press Release 41/01


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) submitted the annual report, prepared by the Office of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, on the situation of freedom of expression in the Americas. This report is part of the Annual Report of the IACHR. In his report, Dr. Santiago Canton, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, mentioned, among other things, the need to strengthen freedom of expression through "greater action on the part of States that demonstrates a serious commitment to respect this right." The Office of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an institution that was established within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and has a mandate from the Heads of State and Government of the Hemisphere, which provided support for it at the Summit of the Americas held in Chile in 1998. The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Dr. Santiago A. Canton, took office in November 1998. Renewed support for the Office of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was provided by the Heads of State and Government at the Summit of the Americas held recently in Quebec, Canada.

This report includes the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression that was approved by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2000. The Declaration, composed of thirteen principles, is a very important instrument for safeguarding freedom of expression within the inter-American human rights system. The annual report also contains an interpretation of the principles of this Declaration.

According to Dr. Canton, "freedom of expression continues to be threatened in several states of the Hemisphere." In the section pertaining to the assessment of the rule of law in the Americas, the Special Rapporteur indicates that the most frequently used methods for restricting freedom of expression are murder, physical and psychological threats, intimidation, and the domestic laws of the countries to institute legal proceedings against journalists and the mass media.

In his annual report, Dr. Santiago Canton stated: "we reiterate the need to implement more initiatives that favor freedom of expression and to ensure that the domestic laws of OAS member States are adapted to international provisions on freedom of expression."

According to the report, in the year 2000, seven journalists were killed in different countries of the region. The Special Rapporteur reiterates that "the killing of a journalist represents the most brutal way of restricting freedom of expression (…). The serious nature of these killings rises to alarming levels when the investigations conducted to punish the perpetrators of these crimes fail to achieve positive results."

Moreover, the report of the Office of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression states that the most noteworthy progress made in the year 2000 was the restoration of democracy in Peru. "The return to democracy has, undoubtedly, been accompanied by restoration of free exercise of the right to freedom of expression by all Peruvian citizens," stated Dr. Canton. However, in the case of Cuba, the Rapporteur indicated that freedom of expression in that country continues to be his main concern. "The absence of multi-party democracy is reflected in the systematic violation of freedom of expression."

The report mentions the concern of the Office of the Rapporteur over freedom expression in Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. However, in the case of Chile, after completion of the report, a law was passed repealing the contempt [desacato] provision appearing in Article 6(b) of the State Internal Security Law. The Special Rapporteur states that: "the repeal of the contempt provision appearing in the State Internal Security Law represents important progress by the Chilean State in terms of recognition of the need to guarantee broad respect for freedom of expression." The Office of the Rapporteur expresses the view that repeal of this article is a very important step forward and the hope that this initiative will permit continued amendment of other Chilean legal provisions, including the definition of contempt in the Penal Code, which violates Article 13 of the American Convention and is at odds with the Declaration of Principles. The Special Rapporteur is pleased with the measure adopted by Chilean State and expresses the hope that it will serve as an example for the other countries of the Hemisphere where so called "contempt laws" remain in effect and are used to muzzle the press.

In the case of Colombia, the report notes that violence against Colombian journalists has continued. "It is the responsibility of the Colombian State to prevent and investigate these acts, to punish the perpetrators, and to ensure that victims receive due compensation." Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur acknowledges the efforts being made by the Colombian State, but notes that these efforts need to be stepped up, inasmuch as journalists continue to be the target of attacks and the perpetrators of these acts are going unpunished. In the case of Venezuela, the Special Rapporteur expresses his concern over a number of statements issued by senior state authorities with regard to the press. According to this report, "public debate, free of restriction on ideas and opinions, is critical to the strengthening of democracy. Debates are further enriched when public officials participate actively in them, since their comments make the society aware of the ideas and opinions of their leaders. However, in the view of the Office of the Rapporteur, under certain circumstances, the comments of public officials can contribute to an atmosphere that is not conducive to exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Over time, hostile and provocative comments regarding persons in the mass media can serve to intimidate journalists and the media and can lead to self-censorship." According to the Special Rapporteur, "some of the statements of the senior authorities may be creating an atmosphere of hostility that could serve as a mechanism for exerting direct and indirect pressure on the mass media." The report of the Office of the Rapporteur also addresses recent events that pose a threat to the exercise of freedom of expression in Guatemala and Panama. Specifically, in regard to Guatemala, the Special Rapporteur mentions an increase in recent months in cases related to the intimidation of and threats against journalists. He also acknowledges a number of initiatives taken by the President to implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur aimed at ensuring respect for freedom of expression in Guatemala. In the case of Panama, Dr. Canton mentions in his report the use of contempt laws and other similar legal provisions to muzzle the press. The Special Rapporteur expresses the hope that the statements made by the President of Panama in which he expressed a willingness to continue the process of amendment of the so-called "gag laws" will take effect as soon as possible. In addition, the Special Rapporteur signals his concern over the approval of the law pertaining to the Association of Journalists in Nicaragua, which makes it mandatory for journalists to join the association in order to practice their profession, in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights. Finally, he notes the concern expressed to the Office of the Rapporteur by some sectors of the civil society in Honduras regarding serious violation of freedom of expression including, inter alia, mandatory membership of journalists in professionals associations and the use of contempt laws to muzzle the press.

In his final comments, the Special Rapporteur underscores the need for OAS member states to bring their laws in line with international standards related to freedom of expression. To that end, Dr. Canton recommends "the repeal of laws that define contempt and the removal of laws on slander and defamation from the criminal sphere, inasmuch as they stifle public discussion, a key element in the functioning of democracies, and violate the American Convention on Human Rights." He concludes by pointing to the need for States to guarantee the right of all citizens to have access to the information in the possession of the State and to habeas data action, since they are essential tools in the strengthening of democracy in the Hemisphere and in ensuring transparency in government action.

Santiago A. Canton
Special Rapporteur for
Freedom of Expression
April 26, 2001
Washington, D.C.