“A perfect storm”: Current expression issues in the Americas

August 2021 in the Americas: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Paula Martins, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.

A picture of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro behind bars is seen during a demonstration against his administration, in Sao Paulo, 7 September 2021,NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

A perfect storm

A recent report by ARTICLE 19 — Global expression Report: The State of Freedom of Expression Around the World — describes Brazil as a country where freedom of expression is “restricted”. “Brazil is the perfect storm of contemporary expression issues: autocratic populism, disinformation, acute inequality, and technological control. The pandemic consolidated trends seen in [2019].”

The country seems to be part of a regional trend, since in the Americas, according to the same report, the regional global score for freedom of expression is at its lowest in a decade.

The policies and practices of President Jair Bolsonaro, his family and supporters have been among the main vectors. They include repeated verbal attacks against the press as well as individual journalists. Earlier this year, for example, Bolsonaro called Globo Group, the country’s largest media conglomerate, “shitty.” During a ceremony, he replied to a journalist: “Shut your mouth! You are creeps! You practice rogue journalism, which doesn’t help at all. You destroy the Brazilian family, destroy the Brazilian religion!”

This type of rhetoric may encourage physical attacks by his followers and others who may conclude that formal authorities endorse such behaviour. During 2020, there were 20 cases of serious violations (murders, attempted murders, and death threats) against journalists in the country. In total, 254 violations against journalists and communicators were documented. Almost 50% (123 violations) were perpetrated by public agents, and 18% (46 cases) were racist, sexist, or biased against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) people.

The spreading of disinformation and misinformation have also been a constant of Bolsonaro’s administration. Since taking office in January 2019, the president has reportedly made 2,187 false or distorted statements — an average of three per day — though the daily volume of disinformation was significantly higher in 2020 amid the pandemic, an economic crisis, and municipal elections.

As Brazil starts to prepare for presidential elections in 2022, the situation continues to deteriorate. Bolsonaro has increased his attacks on the Brazilian 25-year old digital voting scheme. According to him, if the 2022 elections are not carried out with the use of paper ballots, it will be annulled. He is now mobilizing his supporters around this idea. During a recent rally, he affirmed that “An election outside those parameters is not an election,” and called on his base to prepare to “fight with all the weapons.” He again attacked the judges of the Supreme Court, in particular those with competencies over cases that involve serious accusations against him, warning about the risks of “institutional rupture.”

As I write, fear of violence is spreading ahead of 7 September, when Brazil celebrates its independence. Bolsonaro’s allies are organizing massive marches across the country. According to the Guardian, the celebrations “could turn out to be Brazil’s answer to 6 January, the day hardcore supporters of Donald Trump — Bolsonaro’s political idol — went on the rampage in Washington, leaving five dead. Others fear that Bolsonaro, a former soldier known for his admiration of authoritarian leaders, might even be plotting a self-coup, by which the democratically elected president tries to seize dictatorial powers.”

The truth is that Brazil is on edge. With his reelection prospects dimming, Bolsonaro’s supporters are ramping up their arguments calling for military intervention. Let’s hope that the brief years of democracy the country has experienced since the end of the military dictatorship, and the memory of it, will have been sufficient to consolidate in Brazilian people and institutions the commitment to human rights and the rule of law needed to face these troubled times.

Mexican journalists and the recurring cycle of violence

During the first half of 2021, 362 attacks against the press were registered in Mexico — the equivalent of 1 every 12 hours. This statistic was recently released by ARTICLE 19, Mexico and Central America in their monitoring report covering the first six months of 2021.

Violence against the press is widespread, and attacks against journalists and the media have been documented in practically all Mexican states. The most recent murders were of Guaymas Sonora, on 22 July, and Jacinto Romero Flores, on 19 August. With these, 22 journalists have been assassinated during the term of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

ARTICLE 19 is calling attention to the sustained violence against journalists and the media, as well as the failure of the Mexican state to provide a safe environment for the exercise of journalism and accountability for freedom of expression violations, and asking for urgent and coordinated actions between the different entities and levels of government to protect the press in Mexico.

“A period of absolute irrationality”

In August, the crackdown continued in Nicaragua. Vice-presidential hopeful Berenice Quezada was accused of ‘terrorism’ for criticising the lack of freedom in the country, and put under house arrest. She was the eighth contender in the election to be arrested since May.

Nicaraguan police arrested the editor of La Prensa — a newspaper critical of President Daniel Ortega — in mid-August. Juan Hollman Chamorro was accused of customs fraud, as well as laundering money, property, and assets. La Prensa offices were raided and the newspaper said it was no longer able to put out a print edition because the government was withholding paper from it. President Ortega then accused the newspaper of “lies, slander, defamation, money laundering and not paying taxes.”

Some countries, including Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, recently recalled their ambassadors to Nicaragua. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions against members of Ortega’s family, warning that the 7 November elections cannot be free with most of Ortega’s opponents jailed.

Also during August, 45 non-governmental organizations had their permits to operate in the country cancelled.

In a BBC interview, poet and novelist Gioconda Belli said: “We’re in a period of absolute irrationality in Nicaragua.”

On 18 August, IFEX-ALC and other IFEX members called on the international community to speak up in defense of press freedom and freedom of expression in Nicaragua, to condemn the ongoing violations of these rights, and to appeal for the restoration of conditions to allow free, fair and transparent elections to take place.

Report: Digital violence against women in Venezuela

IFEX-ALC member in Venezuela Espacio Público has published a new report entitled Gender digital violence against women in Venezuela. The document analyzes the cases of two journalists and one activist who suffered retaliation for expressing themselves, being subject to gender-based attacks and discrimination.

The report provides an introduction to the situation of gender-based digital violence in Venezuela and its impacts on women’s rights. It found a problematic lack of knowledge about the problem, and calls for an approach that addresses the challenges of women as a group, looking beyond individual cases and addressing the structural challenges that lead to gender-based discrimination and inequality which, in turn, lead to violence against women, both online and offline.

Banning books in Texas

A Texas school district announced that it would remove or suspend thirteen books from its secondary school book club readings lists, including titles from Jacqueline Woodson, Margaret Atwood, and Carmen Maria Machado, among others.

According to IFEX member PEN America, the move was in response to a campaign by some local community members against books they say are “inappropriate” for children. Many of the removed or suspended books address difficult but important issues related to race or gender, including racial discrimination, LGBTQ+ relationships, mental health, and sexual assault and violence.

PEN America notes that these developments follow a national trend in the US, where debates about racism, national identity, and diversity in public schools have become hotly contested. They go on to note that “removals” of this nature risk sending the message that the titles in question — and the subjects they cover — are off-limits, taboo, or undeserving; the books have been judged, found “controversial,” and punished with mass purging.

Canada’s #InternetSOS

IFEX member in Canada OpenMedia launched a platform in August — #InternetSOS — to promote issues related to the Internet in the run-up to the 2021 Elections. According to OpenMedia, “Canada’s Internet is trapped in dangerously lobbyist-infested waters.”

The platform calls on candidates to reset internet policy debates in the country and embrace a vision for the internet that puts the rights of ordinary Canadians first.

OpenMedia is calling on every party to guarantee:

  • Universal Internet Access: Fast, affordable, and competitive home and mobile Internet access for everyone in Canada.
  • Empowered Internet Users: Internet content regulation that empowers us, the users, to make our own choices about what we experience online.
  • Expanded Privacy Protections: Reformed privacy laws built on our ongoing consent for use of our data, with meaningful punishment for violations.

Want to learn more about OpenMedia’s detailed recommendations under each of these items? Check their full proposals here.

Colombian protests and the role of citizen journalism

Recent months in Colombia have been the most violent against the press in decades. According to IFEX-ALC member Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), in less than 90 days, 342 journalists who were covering social demonstrations were victims of some type of attack. 216 were attacked by members of public forces.

Despite this grave situation, FLIP affirms that there was no outrage, no preventative measures and no messages of support for reporters. On the contrary, there were sobering messages on how to do good journalism. Citizen media have been singled out and labeled as enemies of the state. This type of narrative, especially when coming from official sources, puts in question the value and importance of journalism for democracy.

That is why FLIP launched a new edition of Páginas para la libertad de expresión, a publication that seeks to promote debate and dialogue about the role of the media in covering public demonstrations and the importance of pluralistic debate to democracy. According to the publication, “there are many journalisms, all valid, and it is the audiences who decide how good or bad they consider them.”

Another important initiative that seeks to understand the context of recent protests in Colombia was launched by Fundación Karisma. Guns against Cell Phones is a ‘PodKast’ miniseries that discusses the impact of the State’s actions on the exercise of human rights in technical and technological environments during the ‘National Strike’ of 2021.

Encryption at risk in Brazil

Legislative proposals regarding the traceability of private messages in Brazil continue to put at risk the effectiveness of encryption to protect the privacy and security of Brazilians. IFEX-ALC member Derechos Digitales has identified legislative initiatives at the federal level that reflect a public discourse in favour of national security and public order at the expense of communications security. These initiatives include the so-called Fake News Bill and the reform of the Code of Criminal Procedures.

In addition to legislative developments, Derechos Digitales calls attention to actual attempts to compromise equipment safety in Brazil in 2021. Recent reports by local groups and media indicate that, earlier this year, the Israeli company NSO Group participated in a tender process of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security for the acquisition of Pegasus — to withdraw, later, when it was reported that the president’s son had intervened in the negotiation with the apparent intention of creating an intelligence (and surveillance) apparatus parallel to the current official intelligence institutions.

Given the complex global panorama around these issues and so many ongoing discussions within Brazil, Derechos Digitales affirms that it is more necessary than ever that at the local, regional and global levels there is greater coordination, not only of civil society, but of all parties interested in the promotion and the defense of encryption, security and privacy.

Cuba and its new post-protests internet regulations

During August, after large street protests the previous month, Cuba passed new regulations that forbid the spreading of content that attacks “the constitutional, social and economic” rules of the state or that incite demonstrations or other acts “that alter public order.” The regulations ban “cyberterrorism” aimed at subverting order or destabilizing the country, categorizing it as a crime of “very high” danger, and criminalize the sharing of “false” and “offensive” information online.

Amnesty International has recently called the digital context in Cuba a paradox. According to the group, Cuba presents a distinctive model of online censorship. “While the independent media scene is transforming, (…) a new generation of independent reporters operate in a murky legal environment and under constant threat of arbitrary detentions. They also face major limitations in accessing the internet.” When websites critical of the government are blocked, users are not notified, but are redirected to other pages. They may, therefore, be unaware of being blocked. While Skype is a blocked service, WhatsApp, Facebook and Wikipedia are not. “Like its dual currency, Cuba also has a dual internet system. The global internet — unaffordable for most Cubans. And its own intranet — cheaper and highly censored”, says Amnesty.

Norges Rodríguez, director of the Cuban digital rights project YucaByte, told IFEX member Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that “[t]hese new regulations are now being integrated into the strategy of the Cuban regime regarding the internet: on the one hand it opens access to the web, but on the other it accompanies it with legal and technical mechanisms that allow for the implementation of censorship.” He added, “This is a farce.”

In Brief

EcuadorAccording to monitoring carried out by IFEX-ALC member Fundamedios, during August 2021, a total of 16 journalists were attacked — six women and 10 men; media outlets were attacked three times, as well as the Communication Council, whose page was hacked. In total, 20 attacks were registered, including five physical attacks, one attempted physical attack, four threats, four abusive legal proceedings, three restrictions on digital space, and three impediments to accessing information.

Venezuela — IFEX-ALC member IPYS Venezuela has reported on the difficult situation of the press in several regions of the country where it is at the mercy of power cuts to continue its coverage. In a recent Alert, it looked at the situation in Nueva Sparta, a region that has been affected by a crisis in power supply since 2020. According to IPYS, this situation is mainly caused by lack of investment and planification.

New & Noteworthy

Ecuador Five projects for a new Communication Law are being analyzed in Ecuador, and a report unifying the proposals will be presented in October for a first debate in the National Assembly.

Chile — Experts and academics say there is a great opportunity for the recognition of digital rights in the new Constitution of Chile, the text of which is being prepared by the Constituent Convention. According to IFEX member Observacom, access to the internet and the generation of mechanisms for its universalization, the right to freedom of expression, privacy and the protection of personal data are some of the digital rights that most resonate in the discussions about the new constitutional text.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on September 7, 2021.

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org