Freedom of Expression

Press Release 26/00


On this the Annual Report on Freedom of Expression in the Americas was submitted, in Washington D.C., to the Organization of American States (OAS). The report is part of the Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and was prepared by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. The Office of the Special Rapporteur is an institution created within the IACHR based on a mandate from the heads of state and government of the Hemisphere, who supported its creation during the Summit of the Americas, held in Chile in 1998. The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Mr. Santiago A. Canton, assumed the position in November 1998.

According to the report, at present there is greater freedom of expression than in prior years, when the majority of dictatorial or authoritarian governments constituted a clear limitation on the freedom of expression. Nonetheless, the report adds that freedom of expression continues to be one of the main targets of authoritarian governments or other groups or individuals who find freedom of expression to be the main obstacle to their authoritarian projects. Furthermore, attacking freedom of expression is a means of seeking to avoid the transparency society demands to limit cases of corruption, which is detrimental to countries democratic stability. "It is precisely with greater freedom of expression that we will succeed in furthering and consolidating democracy. Despite two decades of democratic progress, democracy is still limited in some States of the hemisphere," according to the introductory chapter of the Report. Violence against journalists continues to be a constant practice in several countries of the hemisphere. "Assassinations, attacks, and threats against journalists occur frequently, and a large number of States have yet to adopt the necessary measures to ensure that these crimes not enjoy impunity."

In 1999, according to the Office of the Special Rapporteur, six journalists were assassinated, five in Colombia and one in Argentina. These are in addition to the hundreds of assassinations of journalists in the Americas in the last decade; in the large majority of cases, the perpetrators of these crimes have gone unpunished. Beyond violence against journalists, the report highlights the need for a series of legal reforms to bring the laws into line with international standards for the defense of the freedom of expression and information. "It is necessary to deepen the institutional reforms, specifically in the laws of the countries of the hemisphere, to guarantee that freedom of expression is adequately defended in the national legal orders."

The report recommends repeal of legislation on desacato, or contempt, and that the slander and libel laws, which are often used to limit freedom of expression, be amended. The Office of the Special Rapporteur recommends, in particular, that such offenses be decriminalized. In addition, the report of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression recommends that the States implement legislation to guarantee the right of access to information. "Having procedures that guarantee access to information in the hands of the State helps to control the state administration, and is one of the most effective mechanisms for fighting corruption," Mr. Canton notes. In addition, the report adds that the laws on access to information contribute to guarantee the transparency of government acts and the consequent reduction of corruption in the state administration. On this point, the Special Rapporteur wishes to highlight the positive disposition of the President of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, who in a recent visit of the Special Rapporteur to Guatemala undertook to send legislation to the Congress to implement the exercise of this right.
The report mentions the concern of the Office of the Special Rapporteur to incorporate the article on the right to accurate information into the Constitution of Venezuela. According to the report, "this doctrine produces the exact opposite effect as that which its backers argue as a basis for its enforcement. In other words, the search for the truth in information is seriously limited as the free flow of information is hindered as a result of the fear of sanctions that might be imposed." According to the Special Rapporteur, "in general, one must recognize that behind the right to accurate information lurks the intent to create mechanisms that make it possible to silence criticism of the authorities. In a democracy, criticisms of the authorities are one of the main means of control that society exercises over abuses. The practical application of this principles has very negative consequences for democracy."

The report also mentions the need to ensure protection and respect for women’s right to freedom of expression and information. "The lack of access to an egalitarian education is a direct violation of women’s right to seek and receive information." The statistics reveal considerable inequality in literacy levels as between men and women. In addition to the difference in education is the limitation on the freedom of expression due to the intimidation produced by acts of domestic violence. On many occasions, women choose not to denounce such acts to the courts, become reclusive, and do not participate in the life of the larger society.

With respect to the Internet, the report recommends that the States not exercise any kind of regulation that might violate the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights or the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. "Those instruments allow for a broad interpretation of freedom of expression." The report mentions the situation of freedom of expression in some countries of the hemisphere. In particular, it expresses its concern over the situation of freedom of expression in Cuba and Peru.

With respect to Cuba, the Office of the Special Rapporteur considers that there is no freedom of expression. "Until changes take place that lead to democratization of the country and recognition of all other fundamental rights, it is impossible to develop the right to freedom of expression."

In Peru, the Special Rapporteur considers that the necessary guarantees for the full exercise of the right to freedom of expression do not exist. According to the report, "the main limitation on the freedom of expression is found in the existence of a systematic plan of harassment by the intelligence services and security forces that have ranged from threats and personal discrediting to acts that constitute serious human rights violations. In addition to this systematic plan one must add the passive attitude of the Judiciary, insofar as it does not undertake a serious and effective investigation of the abuses and crimes against journalists, and its active stance, as it is used as a mechanism for harassing and intimidating investigative journalists."

Finally, the report of the Special Rapporteur also makes mention of progress in the area of freedom of expression that has been attained in countries such as Panama and Argentina. In the case of Panama, Mr. Canton makes reference to the derogation of some "gag laws," an important step forward on the part of the Panamanian government to dismantle a legal framework restrictive of the freedom of expression. In the case of Argentina, the report highlights the existence of a bill that would modify the legislation on slander and libel. This proposed legislation is under consideration in the Argentine Senate; if approved, it could be an example for the rest of the countries of the hemisphere, and it would constitute one of the most significant advances in the area of freedom of expression and democratic progress.

Santiago A. Canton
Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression
Washington, D.C. May 11, 2000