Dancing in the dark, a culture of secrecy and a roadmap for digital human rights in Latin America

September 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.

An indigenous woman carries a statue of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro with the label “Genocide award”, during a march summoned by indigenous women’s groups, in Brasilia, 10 September 2021, Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

A roadmap for the digital human rights agenda in Latin America

On 20 September, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced the launching of the Dialogue of the Americas on Internet Freedom of Expression. According to the announcement, the initiative seeks to “address the challenges currently presented by digital technologies for the exercise of human rights in the region.”

It proposes the development of a multisectoral dialogue around the quality of public debate, content moderation, and digital literacy for the development of civic skills, and will seek inputs that could feed into an ‘Inter-American plan of action’ to address those themes. The final product will be presented to the IACHR, which will then assess how to make it compatible with the mechanisms formally available in the Inter-American System.

It will also encourage stakeholders to take on ‘action commitments’ based on the solutions and good practices identified during the process.

Click here to watch an introductory video by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Pedro Vaca. And to learn about how to get involved in the Dialogue, access the page Participa and Dialoga.

Transparency law concerns in Venezuela

Members of IFEX-ALC and other regional organizations that form the Alianza Regional por la Libre Expresión e Información have expressed deep concern over the so-called Law of Transparency and Access to Information of Public Interest, approved on 17 September 2021 by the National Assembly of Venezuela.

According to the organizations, the process for reviewing the bill lacked transparency and participation. The final version was adopted without open and public consultation.

Among the substantive worrying aspects of the law are the fact that it fails to expressly state that the retention of confidential information should be, as a rule, the exception; it also falls short of promoting proactive transparency — there are no references to open access formats, and no guidelines concerning the basic minimum information that public entities should publish irrespective of information requests; finally, it does not provide for the creation of an oversight body.

The culture of secrecy and hyper-digitalization

IFEX-ALC member Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) has affirmed in a recent statement that a ‘culture of secrecy’ is prevalent in Colombian public bodies. FLIP has called attention to the catalyzing effect of digitalization — during the pandemic, journalism has largely migrated to the virtual world, while digitalization has provided new tools and practices that have facilitated public opacity.

The organization has highlighted five measures taken by the Colombian government during the past year that negatively impacted transparency and limited the monitoring of public functions by society at large:

  1. The extension of time limits to respond to petitions from the public (Decree 491 of 2020) — One and a half years after time limits for responding to information requests were doubled by authorities, via Executive decree and using the pandemic as justification, the government continues to insist on maintaining this decree and has not restored the guarantee of the ‘right to petition’ to the original time limits.
  2. The increased use of the ‘reserved according to legal provisions’ justification to deny access — It is common for public entities to respond to information requests by affirming that the information is subject to confidentiality, due either to data processing policies or national security issues. These answers are usually insufficient, since the entities do not carry out a test to verify if, in the case at hand, the reservation has a legal basis, if it seeks to protect interests set forth in the law on access to public information, and if the delivery of that information would generate damage.
  3. The ‘judicialization’ of access to information — In order to obtain a response to the requests for access to information, the petitioners too often must file appeals or take other administrative or judicial measures. This takes place because public entities allege reservations, disregard the legal deadlines, or because the responses are insufficient. These practices clearly hinder the exercise of journalism, and is at times a strategy to delay investigations.
  4. The imposition of extra burdens on journalists — A common response from public entities to information requests is that the information is already published in official gazettes or on the website of the body. In these cases there is a clash between active transparency and the right to petition, since the fact that the information is available in bulletins does not give a free pass for public entities to refuse to respond to information requests under this argument.
  5. No jurisdiction to answer — Finally, another recurrent practice has been the remittance of information requests from one body to another, under the justification of lack of jurisdiction. This results in the restarting of the counting of the legal time limits to respond. Petitioners often have to knock on several doors to find the competent entities and get answers.

In view of the above, FLIP has requested urgent measures by the Procuraduría General de la Nación, in particular: to ensure in practice the enforcement of the ‘principle of maximum disclosure’, according to which the general rule is transparency and access to information, and restrictions are exceptional; to promote the ex officio investigation of disciplinary offenses or misconduct referring to the right of access to information; and to promote the training of public officials on transparency and access to information in order to correct systematic deficiencies that reflect a lack of understanding of the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information (Law 1712 of 2014).

Restricting indigenous women’s right to protest in Brazil

In early September, IFEX-ALC member ARTIGO 19 Brazil — along with Amnesty International Brazil, the Comissão de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, Comitê Brasileiro de Defensoras e Defensores de Direitos Humanos, Conectas Direitos Humanos, Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (Inesc), Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), Justiça Global, Terra de Direitos, Plataforma Dhesca and WWF-Brasil — sent a statement to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR / UN) expressing concern about a possible violation of the rights to freedom of expression and protest of indigenous peoples mobilized for the II National March of Indigenous Women, in Brasília.

According to the document, pro-government groups had been blocking important routes around the Supreme Court for months and threatening to invade it, with no impediment from the authorities of the Brazilian capital. These authorities, however, threatened to impose limitations to the March of Indigenous Women, an event that had been publicly planned for months. The indigenous women and supporting social movements have also reported attacks by the pro-government groups camping in the main square where their public demonstrations were planned to take place.

Our right to information in action: Official documents made public in Brazil

Curator of the Pinpoint project in Brazil, the Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo (Abraji) shared two new collections including thousands of public interest documents to be made available for journalistic investigations. In its second month of a partnership with Google, Abraji made 35,102 files of accounting reports and demonstrations of political parties referring to the year 2020 available, in addition to 4,273 audit reports from the Federal Comptroller’s Office (Controladoria-Geral da União — CGU) going back to January 2018.

Developed to support the work of journalists, Pinpoint is a Google tool that uses artificial intelligence to automatically identify names of people, locations and companies mentioned in written documents and audios. In addition to searching and analyzing PDFs, the platform provides automatic audio transcripts. Access to Pinpoint is free, but the user needs a Gmail contact to use it.

Promoting inclusion and accessibility in social media

This September, IFEX-ALC member Fundación Karisma launched Más autonomía digital y menos barreras. The toolkit provides guidelines for those who work in human rights to design and implement good practices that lead to more accessible and inclusive communicative content on websites and social networks.

The publication conceptualizes disability as a social construct and builds on the legal framework provided by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

According to Karisma, “the social model of disability invites us to recognize a diversity of conditions that, by not being addressed, prevent the right to education, information and knowledge generation” and include accessibility barriers, situational barriers and learning barriers.

The toolkit discusses all of these concepts and provides concrete guidelines for web accessibility, including regarding colours, fonts, file formats, transcriptions and descriptions for social media, as well as website structures. It also looks at the measures that should be kept in mind by those organizing in-person events and meetings.

Tracking electoral advertising in Argentina

On 12 September 2021, primary elections were held in Argentina in order to determine which candidates will participate in the general legislative elections on 14 November. The elections registered a 66% turnout — the lowest participation since 2011, the year in which the primaries were implemented in the country.

Through the use of PubliElectoral — a social interest technological tool and methodology it developed — IFEX-ALC member Associacion por los Derechos Civiles (ADC) collected and analyzed information on the electoral campaign carried out on Facebook from 16 August to 12 September.

PubliElectoral allows for the collection and analysis of electoral advertising on social networks. The content is collected by monitoring selected political accounts. With the participation of citizens who download either the application or the PubliElectoral plugin, and who use Facebook during the electoral period, it compiles sponsored ads and organic advertising that reach their screens from the monitored accounts. The information is stored in a database for later analysis.

You can check the preliminary findings for the September primaries here.

Asking Mexican senators to repeal the ‘Unique Identity Card’

This September, 27 organizations working on digital issues in Latin America sent a joint letter to Mexican senators expressing their concern with the current draft of the Ley General de Población, in particular regarding the plans to establish the “Unique Digital Identity Card” (Cédula Única de Identidad Digital — CUID), which is provided in the text as mandatory and aimed at building a centralized database that would include biometric data of all Mexican citizens and of all foreigners in Mexican territory.

According to the organizations, there is no solid evidence of the usefulness of massive biometric identification systems such as CUID. Also, the centralized design of the CUID database presents a serious risk of data breach, the consequences of which can be irreversible or very difficult to repair. The signatories believe that the obligation to register for the CUID using biometric data will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. Its use as a condition for access to public and private services, particularly when combined with biometric data, allows massive and permanent monitoring of the population.

The organizations advocate for a significant review of the draft. In particular, the following is recommended:

  • Biometric data should not be included as part of the National Population Registry.
  • The CUID should rest on decentralized systems.
  • The CUID should be set up as an optional form of identity.
  • The conditioning of access to public or private services to obtaining the CUID should be prevented.
  • The collection, storage or transfer of data that record the use of the CUID should be avoided.

Read the full letter and a detailed analysis of the draft here.

Voting, violence and censorship in Mexico

ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America, along with the network Rompe el Miedo, released the results of their work monitoring freedom of expression and association election-related violations that took place in the first half of 2021.

The groups documented 81 attacks against journalists during the coverage of the electoral process between 19 April and 31 June 2021. Political parties were the main perpetrators, with 41.41% of the documented aggressions. The most common types of violations were: acts of intimidation and harassment — 27.27%; threats — 14.14%; and physical attacks and blocking or alteration of information — 12.12%. Of all documented aggressions in this period, 6.06% were classified as ‘illegitimate use of public power’.

The report goes beyond the numbers, providing an analysis of patterns of violence in the physical and digital spheres exerted by various perpetrators such as political parties, public officials, individuals and even members of organized crime, with the intention of generating a series of specific recommendations addressed to various authorities to avoid the repetition of these events.

Dancing in the dark

Information is increasingly in the background, while musical and propagandistic content resonate with ever more force in Venezuela. In a new publication, IPYS Venezuela provides a graphic story that demonstrates the impact censorship is having on radio stations in the country.

The publication uses storytelling and graphics to inform us about the growing restrictions on news content in broadcasting that has led to the creation of so many information deserts in Venezuela. The story is part of the project Atlas del Silencio, according to which more than 5 million Venezuelans live in ‘news deserts’. IPYS Venezuela is conducting a study to identify the panorama of such news deserts throughout the national territory, based on the diagnosis and mapping of national, regional and local media (print, television channels, radio stations and digital portals) that produce news about the reality of the country’s 335 municipalities.

Click here to access Dancing in the dark.

9/11 and what we built after it

IFEX member Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) marked the twentieth anniversary of the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington, DC with a reflection on the measures taken in response and their long term impact in the areas of surveillance and government secrecy, which are deeply problematic for democracy, privacy and fairness, both in the US and internationally.

EFF recalls the passing of the Patriot Act, and affirms that the US government has since “developed a huge and expensive set of secret spying operations that eviscerated the line between domestic and foreign surveillance and swept up millions of non-suspect Americans’ communications and records”.

The group mentions the expansion of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program FAIRVIEW, which allowed the agency to set agreements with telecom companies in order to monitor phone calls going in and out of the country; the massive augmentation of the surveillance infrastructure in the post-war-on-terror; and “the ‘collect it all’ mentality manifest in our local police departments, both through massive surveillance technology injections and in the slow enmeshing of local with federal surveillance.”

On a positive note, EFF celebrates the growth of encryption across the digital world.

All this surveillance and secrecy has failed to delivered the safety expected; it has, however, had significant negative consequences — faced mainly by those already in a situation of vulnerability and marginalization.

In brief

ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America recently launched the report Brecha digital, desigualdad y desinformación: Chiapas y Oaxaca. Its main objective is to make visible the impact of the digital divide on human rights exercised through and with the use of ICTs that, in Mexico, mainly affects those located in the southeast region, in particular the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

The report gives an account of: 1) the state of the infrastructure for connectivity; 2) the relationships between access to and use of the internet and the differentiated exercise of the rights of populations, with particular attention to the right to freedom of expression and information and in the context of a pandemic; 3) the phenomenon of digital disinformation; and 4) the mechanisms and alternative strategies for access, use and generation of ICTs implemented at the local level by groups and communities in both states.

In Argentina, IFEX-ALC member ADC has reported that the application Mi Argentina, provided by the central government to allow access to public services and processes, has made use of the users’ personal data to disseminate political information in violation of the country’s data protection legislation. ADC criticizes the terms of use of the app as vague and unclear.

On 19 September, in the Columbian western city of Tuluá, an unidentified man with a pistol entered a store where journalist Marcos Efraín Montalvo was talking with a friend, and fatally shot the journalist four times in the chest, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The gunman did not rob the store, immediately fled on a motorcycle. Montalvo, 68, had reported since the 1970s for local newspapers and radio stations and for the El País newspaper in the nearby city of Cali; in recent years he published nearly all of his reporting on his personal Facebook page. Nine days later, on 28 September, unidentified attackers shot and killed journalist Manuel González Reyes, founder and editor of the Facebook-based news outlet Portal Morelos Noticias, in Cuernavaca, the capital of the central Mexican state of Morelos. CPJ and local groups have called on Colombian and Mexican authorities to immediately and thoroughly investigate the killings, determine whether they were targeted for their work, and hold those responsible to account.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on October 5, 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