Tragic news from Brazil, upheaval in Ecuador, and concerns over data privacy after US anti-abortion ruling
June 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.
Ecuador’s social and political crisis deepens and brings with it a disturbing rise in violent attacks against journalists. The killings of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips in Brazil fuel international indignation and raise concerns over the future of the Amazon, amid electoral tensions. Peru’s freedom of the press continues to be attacked. A landmark decision in the United States against reproductive rights sounds alarms among digital rights and privacy advocates.
Ecuador: The result of a decade of stigmatising the press
Two years after the crisis that shook Ecuador in 2019, there has been a new wave of protests led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) against the government of President Guillermo Lasso. The indefinite national strike that began mid-June intensified, and demonstrations turned violent. Clashes between police and protesters left several protesters dead or injured. In some cases, police forces have been denounced for use of abusive force. Ecuadorians saw attacks on public buildings, and violent confrontations between people for and against the marches.
In response, the government declared a state of emergency that raised concerns among civil society organisations, but it has recently been lifted.
Journalists have been hit particularly hard. Fundamedios has registered the cases of 159 journalists and press workers attacked since the start of the general strike, with most of the aggressions perpetrated by protesters.
The insults that accompany both physical and digital attacks have been virulent, often targeting journalists and accusing press workers of being “sellouts” and “liars”. Some journalists and indigenous leaders have seen their social media accounts hacked. Both government representatives and indigenous leaders have tried to call on protesters to refrain from violence; CONAIE’s president, Leónidas Iza, has called for protesters to allow the press to do their work.
For journalist Arahí Vega, these attacks are part of a wider, worrying trend in recent years: “This is the result of a decade of stigmatisation against journalists that has become engrained [in Ecuadorian society]”.
In combination with the impunity that has followed most attacks — including those that took place during the crisis of 2019 — the current context is forcing Ecuadorian journalists to work at the intersection of multiple threats.
As we prepare to publish this brief, there is breaking news that the government and protesters have come to an agreement and protesters have ended the strike. The story is still in development, however. You can follow Fundamedios on Twitter [in Spanish] to find out more.
Brazil: Bad news from the Amazon amid electoral tensions
June saw the tragic news confirming the deaths of Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, who disappeared while travelling on the Itaquaí River earlier this month. IFEX and IFEX-ALC joined over a dozen human rights organisations to express indignation and deep sorrow, highlighting Brazilian authorities’ worrying record of disdain for freedom of speech and human rights in general.
Pereira and Phillips were working on an investigation about illegal fishing in indigenous lands, but their murders have drawn attention to the complex web of activities taking place in the area, especially mining and drug trafficking. The case also shone a critical light on Bolsonaro’s attitudes towards the alarming exploitation of the Amazon, which makes journalism and advocacy even more dangerous in the country. Human Rights Watch (HRW), for example, underlined how authorities lost precious time in the search for Phillips and Pereira, and Bolsonaro blamed the victims, saying they had embarked on a sort of ill-advised “adventure”.
Bolsonaro’s hostilities against the press are well-known; however, the case prompted organisations like Artigo 19 to reiterate that journalists and activists in the Amazon are “on the front lines” and need protection, today more than ever.
According to Clarinha Glock of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), “There is implicit authorization [to kill a foreign journalist] when a government defames, risks, and prevents journalists from reporting facts.”
This is all the more alarming considering a set of other important elements at play: experts warn of a “collapse” if Bolsonaro stays on as president, with Bolsonaro-supporting groups’ massive disinformation campaigns, and the president’s own threats of not recognizing the results if he is declared defeated in October.
Peru: Yes, but…
Peru saw the withdrawal of the lawsuit against journalist Christopher Acosta and Penguin Random House editor Jerónimo Pimentel. Judge Jesús Vega had condemned them to a suspended prison sentence — with biometric controls and the right to leave their place of residence only with judicial permission — and to pay 400,000 soles (US$ 100,000) to the plaintiff, politician and businessman César Acuña.
Nonetheless, the general atmosphere regarding freedom of speech in Peru continues to be in decline. After his visit, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted in his report “a serious degradation in the public debate, serious limitations to the daily work of the press and a climate of violence and hostility against journalists and the media”.
The report’s recommendations, including guaranteeing access to the press, rejecting violence, and investigating attacks, were welcomed by local and regional organisations. However, some experts noted that given the deterioration of basic press freedom in recent years there is a need for concrete actions to ensure that government officials understand the role of the press, and respond to their requests accordingly.
At the same time, things may get worse before they get better, with the advancement of a bill aiming to criminalise journalistic work on judicial investigations. The Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) has denounced the bill as “a direct affront to freedom of information” and an attempt to protect those who are being investigated for corruption within the government.
The end of Roe v Wade in the United States: a blow to reproductive rights — and privacy
“The difference between now and the last time that abortion was illegal in the United States is that we live in an era of unprecedented digital surveillance.”
The US Supreme Court shook the whole region when it officially reversed the ruling known as “Roe v. Wade”, eliminating the right to abortion in the United States as a constitutional right. The decision is far-reaching in terms of reproductive rights, particularly for Black and Hispanic communities; and digital rights advocates are urging action aimed at the protection of data privacy and access to information. Only a few days after the decision, Facebook was quick to take down content referring to abortion pills, while several abortion advocacy pages on Instagram found their posts or stories hidden with a warning describing the posts as “sensitive content”, even though they were purely informative.
The reversal of the ruling is leaving the door open for further legislation and new opportunities for anti-abortion groups’ strategies. Eva Galperin, director of cyber security at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), highlighted the importance of taking a close look to the immense amount of data that has been collected by tech companies and data brokers over the years, something that can be used to trace, harass and incriminate: “The difference between now and the last time that abortion was illegal in the United States is that we live in an era of unprecedented digital surveillance.”
As a response to this, EFF is supporting the “ My Body, My Data “ Act, which “will require businesses and non-governmental organisations to act responsibly with personal information concerning reproductive health care” and restrict them from collecting, using or disclosing reproductive health information that is not essential to the service they provide.
Prison sentence of Bolivian ex-president seen as a worrisome politisation of justice. Jeanine Añez was condemned to 10 years in prison for her participation during the chaotic exit of Evo Morales, seen by his supporters as a coup d’Etat. Without dismissing the gravity of the charges — Añez was accused, among other serious charges, of human rights violations for the crackdown on protests just days after arriving in office — analysts call it yet another use of the judicial branch to punish political opponents, a tendency already highlighted by the IACHR.
Also in Bolivia, the National Press Association (ANP) energetically condemned the release of two people accused of kidnapping journalists, considering it an act of impunity. Both had been identified as the main perpetrators in the kidnapping, and also of beatings and death threats.
Elections in Colombia bring its first-ever leftist president — and attacks against the press. Colombia’s Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) led a public statement, signed by other organisations, including IFEX-ALC. It expresses concern over stigmatising and disinforming discourse against journalists and the media, as well as its effect on the work of the press and the environment it will have to function in under the new presidency.
Concern over the rise of “anti-press freedom” bills in the Dominican Republic. The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) highlighted the problematic nature of bills that “insist on the criminal nature of defamation, including in cyberspace, and overprotect leaders from criticism,” something that can create a chilling effect on press freedom and journalistic work.