Progress on freedom of expression, safety of journalists and human rights? A few steps forward, but many more back
May 2022 in the Americas: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Laura Vidal, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
In May, organisations in the region commemorated World Press Freedom Day, spreading the word about developments in freedom of expression — many of them worrying for countries that had previously managed to maintain a relatively safe environment for journalists and freedom of the press. Meanwhile, bills and amendments sound alarms in Nicaragua and Venezuela, and Mexico laments more victims taken by rampant violence that seems beyond control.
We know how dependent a robust civic space is on the right to freedom of expression and information — and vice versa. In recent months, the Americas region has been forced to reckon with instability in countries including Bolivia, Peru and Uruguay — not the usual suspects when it comes to more alarming reports of threats against these rights. The contexts are, of course, different in each case, but it’s possible to find similar ground when looking at the political crises that followed tense government changes and mounting social unrest.
In Bolivia, the political deadlock that marked the departure of Evo Morales from the presidency in 2019 left an already polarised country in a longstanding division that has affected the atmosphere surrounding the work of Bolivian journalists. In 2021, the same year IFEX member the National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP Bolivia) reported 38 attacks against journalists in the country, the kidnapping of five journalists shocked the public and helped push for the creation of a mechanism to protect journalists. The discussions around the mechanism are still in place, however, and very little is known about its details.
As we reported in our March monthly brief, Peru continues to see alerts piling up as political tensions continue and the government’s discourse around the press seems locked into portraying journalists as antagonistic. In this context, “security measures” put in place by law enforcement bodies block access to journalists, preventing them from covering public events with government representatives or entering buildings like the Legislative Palace. Journalists were even prevented from covering the visit of IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Pedro Vaca, who was prompted to visit the country in May as part of efforts to curb soaring violence and harassment against media workers.
Meanwhile, Uruguay saw a worrying development, as reported by IFEX member the Uruguayan Center for Archives and Access to Public Information ( CAinfo), which recorded 69 events limiting journalists’ freedom of expression in the last year. Comparatively, Uruguay continues to be advantaged, but the remarkable increase in cases of prosecution of journalists, as well as restrictions on access to public information is nonetheless worrisome. It is important to take into account as well that these developments are taking place with the passing of controversial legislation that, many fear, will translate into a further loss of freedoms related to civic space and access to public information.
Weaponising the law
May also saw intense discussions around legal changes expected to negatively impact the work of the press and of human rights defenders in general.
In Costa Rica, the passing of a new “gag law” is worrying law experts, journalists and rights defenders, who see in some of its articles an impediment to the coverage of corruption cases and sanctions against public officials. The law was approved by Congress, but intense pressure from both the press and the Costa Rican Journalists’ Association ( Colegio de Periodistas de Costa Rica) compelled outgoing president Carlos Alvarado to give a partial veto before leaving office. The debate seems to have settled down for the moment, but the bill can still be brought back if it has enough votes from the legislature.
Systematic attacks against NGOs in Nicaragua continue, and have become even stronger with the approval of a new law regulating and restricting the work of non-profit organisations. Keeping up with the closing of organisations by the Ortega-Murillo regime can prove difficult: International media report 77 shutdowns since the enactment of the law in April, while Nicaraguan outlet Confidencial (which continues to function in exile) recorded 119 since the start of the year. Targeted organisations cover several areas of work, from human rights defense, history, and research, to women’s rights. Even the Nicaraguan Language Academy has been closed.
A similar move is taking place in Venezuela, where local IFEX members Espacio Público and IPYS Venezuela, together with many more human rights and civil society organisations, are alarmed by a new bill limiting international cooperation and access to funds outside the country. A collective statement signed by 500 organisations explains that the bill “seeks to reinterpret the definition of international cooperation from the ideological, political and/or economic interests of the national government, omitting essential concepts such as human rights and humanitarian aid.”
While protesters and artists continue to be imprisoned and given harsh sentences in Cuba, the recent reforms to the Penal Code constitute yet another alarm for rights groups on the island and abroad. The amendment prohibits Cuban citizens from receiving funds from outside the country, which could be used to limit the work of, and effectively silence, independent journalists and outlets who would not be able to carry out their functions without this kind of support.
On World Press Freedom Day and the Day of the Internet
May was also the occasion for many organisations to share the results of their work monitoring free expression rights. In Argentina, IFEX member Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA) shared its annual report, which highlighted soaring rates in aggressions against journalists. CAInfo also launched its own report, which showed worrying developments for freedom of expression in Uruguay.
Networks in the region celebrated the International Day of the Internet, holding and promoting discussions around legislation related to the use of technology in legal contexts or around content moderation from the perspective of the region. It was also an opportunity to bring back attention to the dire conditions affecting how — and whether — Venezuelans access information online.
No signs of an end to violence against journalists in Mexico
Mexico had already entered an extraordinary period in 2022 with the killing of five journalists in January, which sparked protests and international criticism of the Mexican government. The outrage doesn’t seem to be having an impact on a situation that is seemingly out of control, as President Lopez Obrador continues to paint a negative picture of the press and to reject any kind of criticism on the matter.
According to Mexican journalist Amigzaday López Beltrán, the tragedy has three fronts: “the media companies that work journalists to the point of servitude; political power, which threatens them with harsh criticism; and organised crime which, in alliance with political power, attacks them with shameful and rampant impunity.” The fifth anniversary of reporter Javier Valdés’s assassination was a dramatic reminder of the latter.
This context has long been described and flagged as problematic by experts and international organisms. The IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has sounded the alarms several times in the last ten years. Special mechanisms have been created at federal and state levels, but they have proven ineffective — reported to be “understaffed, underfunded, and unable to respond quickly with appropriate measures”. Between 2011 and 2020, at least nine journalists under the mechanism have been killed, as was the case of Luis Enrique Ramírez, killed this month in Culiacán.
Ramírez’s wasn’t the only case documented in May. Yessenia Mollinedo and Johana García were also shot dead in Veracruz. Their cases fit another pattern, however: an attempt to criminalize journalists to justify their killings. Something that, according to López Beltrán, is an attempt by the State to disassociate itself from its responsibility to guarantee their safety. IFEX’s Article19 Mexico highlighted this attitude of the Mexican State in their annual report: Negación (denial).
The UN Human Rights Council elected three experts to lead the investigation into human rights violations committed in Nicaragua since the beginning of its crisis in 2018. The election was welcomed by human rights organisations in the region and marks a new step forward after the creation of the special mechanism in March this year.
Journalist Francisca Sandoval died from a gunshot wound to the head received while she was covering the big Workers’ Day demonstrations in Chile, in which gunmen opened fire. Two other journalists were injured. The case is drawing attention to the increasingly dangerous working environment for Chilean journalists.
Gang violence in Haiti continues to claim lives and deepen instability. Since the beginning of the year, three journalists have been killed and many more taken hostage in the confrontations. The Association of Haitian Journalists is calling for concrete steps to protect journalists — to go beyond statements of support on social media.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on June 2, 2022.