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INTERVIEW: Changing of the guard for the OAS Freedom of Expression Rapporteur

The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is changing hands. After six intense years, Colombian lawyer Catalina Botero has passed the baton to Uruguayan journalist Edison Lanza. Silvia Chocarro Marcesse interviewed them for IFEX.

Former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Catalina Botero (l) and her successor Edison Lanza (r)
Former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Catalina Botero (l) and her successor Edison Lanza (r)

Colombian lawyer Catalina Botero speaks passionately about the six years she has been the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the branch of the Organization of American States (OAS) whose mission is to promote and protect human rights. Her enthusiasm, however, does not hide the fact that it was difficult. On 6 October 2014, Edison Lanza, a Uruguayan lawyer and journalist, and co-founder of the Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública (CAinfo), an IFEX member, assumes the role of Special Rapporteur.


CATALINA BOTERO

How has your vision of the role of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression evolved?

I always had the idea that the rapporteur's mission was to promote the right to freedom of expression. What was not clear to me was how difficult it was going to be. Over the years, difficulties were increasing, but we managed to circumvent them very successfully.

What is the biggest challenge you faced as Special Rapporteur?

To build an institutional structure. The biggest challenge has been making the office of the rapporteur an institution, not dependent on a person or team but having all institutional guarantees to operate over time, regardless of who manages it. It has been a hard process to have an office like the one we have today, but now it is very strong and stable.

What was your greatest achievement?

I believe there have been three types of achievements. The first one, as I mentioned, has been institutional. The second achievement has been thematic, having strengthened issues already on the agenda, including access to information, while incorporating new ones such as the safety of journalists, which is the most important challenge the region is facing. Finally, on a more personal level, it's the satisfaction of having defended people under threat or who were going to be murdered, or having helped to keep people out of prison - people who could have been sentenced for exercising their right to freedom of expression. These victories give hope, which is not a little thing, because great transformations depend on people having hope.

In your opinion, what is the state of freedom of expression in the Americas?

The Americas cannot be understood as a homogeneous body. You have to talk about the eyes, the arms, the ears. In the United States, for example, the major challenges are related to surveillance programs, protection of whistleblowers and confidentiality of sources. In Central America and parts of South America there are other challenges related to violence and organized crime or media concentration, for example.

What are the major challenges facing the region in terms of freedom of expression?

Certainly, the first one is violence and impunity. The second is the use of criminal law to tame criticism and control the public sphere. The third is access to information.

There are very few things more important for the rapporteur than relying on the work of organizations like IFEX.
- Catalina Botero

The fourth is the use of indirect censorship mechanisms, such as using governmental advertising to reward friends and punish others. The last one is the inclusion of actors traditionally excluded from public debates. In this regard, it means to have more media, more voices and more people, avoiding not only private but also public monopolies. Monopolies are bad, public or private.

How do you think IFEX can strengthen the office of the Rapporteur?

They are the eyes and the ears of the rapporteur. There are very few things more important for the rapporteur than relying on the work of organizations like IFEX. Its information is crucial and it feeds all our reports. I adore IFEX!

What advice would you give to Edison Lanza as he takes up his new role?

The most important advice for any rapporteur for freedom of expression is to maintain one's integrity. You're there to defend principles and that has a price. Nobody said it was going to be easy. It's difficult.


EDISON LANZA

How do you envision the role of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression?

The rapporteur is a reference in the field of freedom of expression and therefore, I am inheriting a big responsibility. I've dedicated my whole life to defending freedom of expression. I assume the post without fear, but with the gravity and responsibility that it entails.

What do you see as your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is to have an impact in those places where there are problems related to freedom of expression. Also, to make the office of the rapporteur a space for dialogue and understanding. We should be able to discuss issues related to freedom of expression. We're here to help, not to label anyone, but to dance, it takes two.

The Rapporteur's office has been criticized by some countries. How will you handle criticism?

If I have to deal with it, I have no objection. When we talk about human rights, there is the principle of non-regression. There are thresholds set by the international community under which you can't go backwards and when we understand that a country crosses that threshold, we will point it out, no matter the country.

In your opinion, what is the state of freedom of expression in the Americas?

The situation is very mixed. It's also bittersweet. Some countries have improved, but some others have worsened. For example, there are more countries that have decriminalized speech offenses or have passed laws on access to information.

We’re here to help, not to label anyone, but to dance, it takes two.
- Edison Lanza

However, there is a worrying obsession from some governments to take over the public space and to equate criticism to subversive acts.

What will be your priorities in the region?

Violence and impunity are crucial issues. It is also important to shed light on the standards for freedom of expression and its application. Furthermore, it's necessary to democratize the media and to promote greater diversity and pluralism, without undermining freedom of expression and journalism. Also, there is the issue of access to public information.

The first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists takes place on 2 November 2014. How do you think the Special Rapporteur can contribute to the effort to end impunity?

The office of the rapporteur has already worked a lot on this topic. It has taken cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and established standards for governments to prevent violence and impunity. One has to get the States to take ownership of these mechanisms. In addition, we will continue to work on this issue with other rapporteurs, such as at the United Nations.

How do you think IFEX can strengthen the office of the Rapporteur?

The work of the rapporteur would be very difficult without the international cooperation of networks like IFEX, especially in monitoring, following-up and disseminating normative standards. IFEX's member organizations are key because they are the ones who are on the ground every day.


This interview took place in Spanish and has been translated into English by Silvia Chocarro Marcesse.

Silvia Chocarro Marcesse is a journalist and media development consultant. You can find her on twitter @silviachocarro

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