Freedom of Expression

Press Release R41/20

Office of the Special Rapporteur condemns murder of journalist Leo Veras in Paraguay and calls for decisive action to prevent and investigate crimes against journalists at the border

February 17, 2020

Washington DC- The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the brutal murder of Brazilian journalist Lourenço "Leo" Veras, in charge of the Porã News information website and correspondent for several Brazilian media, who worked in the border region in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero, capital of the department of Amambay, Paraguay.

This Office calls on the Paraguayan State to investigate fully, effectively, and impartially this crime and others that are unpunished; clarify their motives; and judicially determine the relationship they might have to journalistic activity and freedom of expression. Likewise, the Office of the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR recalls that the problem of violence against journalists in the Americas has worsened, in many cases, with the presence of organized crime in vast areas of the hemisphere and the co-optation or weakness of the state apparatus in these places. In the thematic report "Silenced Zones", this Office identified as an emblematic case that of cities located on the border of Paraguay with Brazil, which illustrate the vulnerability of journalists who investigate acts of corruption and drug trafficking.

According to information provided by the National Police of Paraguay, journalist Leo Veras was shot approximately 12 times allegedly by two people who, along with a third person, drove a truck. The crime happened at the journalist's private home, located in the Aurora Garden neighborhood. Veras was having dinner with his family and although he tried to escape the shooting, he was shot in the head and later died in the Viva Vida hospital in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero.

The Attorney General’s Office of the State of Paraguay announced that it created a investigation team on the murder due to the multiple death threats that the communicator would have received in recent years. Veras worked for more than 15 years in the border region surrounding the city of Ponta Porã, known as one of the main ports of entry of drugs and weapons in Brazil. The journalist was in charge of the Porã News news website that conducted investigative journalism informing about the drug trafficking dispute on the border between Paraguay and Brazil. On January 19, in Pedro Juan Caballero, 75 prisoners broke out of prison, most of them linked to the Brazilian criminal organization First Command of the Capital (PCC), from the regional penitentiary. Sources close to Veras reported that the journalist would have expressed he feared for his life in the wake of the situation.

In an interview with Veras on the Brazilian television network Record TV in January of this year, he said he received threats by texts to his phone where he was told to "shut up." Another relevant incident was back in 2017, during a presentation made by Veras in the program of Tim Lopes de Abraji on crimes against journalists (cases of Paulo Rocaro and Luiz Henrique Tulu), the journalist reported that he and his family stopped attending public and social events due to the insecurity he felt.

According to information provided by the Paraguay journalists' union, since the return to democracy in 1989, counting Veras, 19 journalists would have been killed in the country and specifically in border areas, where the journalistic guild was scarred by the crime against journalist Santiago Leguizamon, which still goes unpunished 29 years after his murder.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur has identified in its thematic report Silenced Zones the grave situation of journalistic work in the border region of Paraguay with Brazil or Argentina where criminal groups operate. In recent years, Paraguay has assisted to the development of a phenomenon that the press and other actors, including the State, call "narcopolitics", characterized by the existence of drug traffickers who have been linked to political activity and have even come be elected to public positions in the country. With the development of the so-called "narcopolitics", freedom of expression has been affected because journalists face serious difficulties when they try to report certain illegal activities that are carried out in their communities, since government institutions -as journalists themselves have denounced- do not work as they should to protect them. Organized crime has pressed on the press with the aim that their activities, even the most obvious ones, are not informed. Threats, harassment, or even the death of some journalists in recent times have left an indelible mark on media workers, despite which they have maintained the commitment to inform society of what is happening in higher risk areas.

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have recommended that States must adopt a comprehensive public policy that allows the prevention, protection, and prosecution in cases of violence against journalists. These policies should take into account the specific needs of each country and the needs of each region, especially those areas where journalists face a higher risk and in which there are high rates of self-censorship.

In the countries in which a specialized protection programs have been established for the protection of journalists, it is essential to work towards building the trust of current and future beneficiaries. The measures adopted as part of the protection program must also be the result of a process in agreement with the beneficiary, so that the protection measures adopted are not ineffective for the context in which the beneficiary is involved, nor that inhibit the exercise of journalistic work. The authorities responsible for providing protection should coordinate with the authorities responsible for investigating acts of violence against journalists and media workers. The most effective form of protection is to end impunity in crimes committed against journalists.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur urges the Paraguayan Government to intensify early warning initiatives and other preventive measures, in line with its international obligations, taking into account the specific nature of the risks and their particular contexts.

Both the Commission and the Inter-American Court have referred to the chilling effect that crimes against journalists have for other media professionals, as well as for citizens who intend to report abuses of power or illegal acts of any nature.

Principle 9 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR states: "[t]he murder, kidnapping, intimidation of, and/or threats to social communicators, as well as the material destruction of communications media violate the fundamental rights of individuals and strongly restrict freedom of expression. It is the duty of the State to prevent and investigate such occurrences, to punish their perpetrators, and to ensure that victims receive due compensation."

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) with the aim of encouraging the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given its fundamental role in consolidating and developing the democratic system.