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The 5 big free expression issues in the Americas

The top issues affecting free expression in the Americas and what free expression Rapporteur Edison Lanza’s new report has to say about them

An image from the 2014 protests in Venezuela
An image from the 2014 protests in Venezuela

AP Photo/Fernando Llano

The Americas, made up of Canada, the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, have almost a billion people living in 35 countries, spread over a landmass of 42,549,000 square kilometers. It is also home to 21 IFEX member organisations monitoring the state of free expression and working to bring the right, and violations against it, out of the shadows and into the public eye. Each day at IFEX brings reports from these members on attacks on journalists and press freedom, privacy violations, as well as important campaign successes.

Edison Lanza, the new Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), is in charge of reviewing all these issues and advising the IACHR on cases of journalists in danger, while also conducting site visits to Organization of American States (OAS) member states.

Every year, his office produces a report on the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Americas. This report is of critical importance to the advocacy work of organisations in the region, including IFEX members.

The report considers each OAS nation, and makes recommendations as to how to strengthen press freedom in the region. The latest report, released earlier today, reflects important shifts in the Americas, including serious challenges to free expression in the digital sphere.

This year, we marked the report's launch by identifying five major free expression issues and highlighting what Lanza had to say about them.

1. Attacks on protestors and journalists

For more than a month, protests shook Venezuela in early 2014, resulting in more than 1200 arrests. Reports from IFEX members Espacio Público and Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela revealed that, by mid-March, 28 protesters had been killed and 104 detained protesters remained in custody, including opposition leader Leopold López.

Mexico also saw a surge in protests in 2014. In April, demonstrations forced the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to take a step back on a proposed telecommunications law. As local member Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social (Cencos) reported, the law would have allowed for Internet services to be cut off in times of “political unrest”, stopping protestors from organizing online. In September, after the disappearance and suspected murder of 43 trainee teachers from Ayotzinapa, mass demonstrations took hold of the country. Article 19's office in Mexico reported that riot police arrested journalists in various part of the country who were covering the unrest.

In Brazil, protests leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup highlighted issues of corruption and the high costs of hosting the tournament. Article 19's office in Brazil reported that on 17 June, after images of violent attacks on protesters appeared on social media, over 200,000 people took part in protests against those abuses. Many journalists covering the protests were injured, including TV cameraman Santiago Ilídio Andrade, who later died of his injuries. In the midst of these violations, the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (Abraji) launched a Security Manual for Protest Coverage.

Rapporteur's observations: Countries should establish clear regulations that guarantee the legitimate exercise of social protest and take special measures to protect journalists, their rights and their equipment when covering social conflict. Read more (page 416).

2. Net neutrality

The term “net neutrality” became a household phrase in 2014, as people across the region took up the fight to make sure all Internet traffic is treated equally. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported that President Obama called on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to come up with new net neutrality rules against proposed regulations that would have created Internet slow lanes for certain types of traffic.

The Argentinian senate also discussed the pros and cons of net neutrality, as did digital rights advocates in Chile, where Derechos Digitales questioned whether allowing free zero-rated services – such as Wikipedia Zero and Facebook's - would result in exceptions to net neutrality rules.

Rapporteur's observations: States should ensure that Internet traffic is not subject to discrimination based on factors such as content, author or origin of the material, in accordance with the principles of net neutrality. Read more (page 419).

3. Social media threats and successes

As governments come to realize the power social media provides to its citizens, many have intensified efforts to silence online dissent.

In Mexico, where fear has forced many media outlets to stop reporting on organized crime, blogs, such as Valor por Tamaulipas (Courage for Tamaulipas), have filled the gap. In October 2014, María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, who had contributed to the blog and tweeted anonymously via @Miut3, was found dead. Drug cartel members who had been looking for her identity and unexpectedly came across her phone announced her death through her own twitter account.

Prominent Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has often been in trouble with authorities for her own work online, launched a new online outlet, 14ymedio, in May 2014. Unfortunately, her new site was blocked within Cuba by the government within three hours of its launch.

Rapporteur's observations: This year's report catalogues many cases of people being penalized for expressing dissent. In Mexico, Lanza highlights a trend of attacks on sites reporting on corruption, while, in Venezuela, the government consistently blocked images on Twitter during the February protests. Read more (pages 243 and 316).

4. New communication and Internet legislation

A four-year process to enact Uruguay's new Audiovisual Communication Services Law, which boasts plans for an independent broadcasting council and transparency in the distribution of broadcasting licenses, came to a conclusion in December 2014. The law was welcomed by local media groups, including Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública (CAinfo). Throughout the process, civil society was part of the consultations, a big reason why this law and the way it came about was hailed as an example of good legislation in the region.

In contrast, a proposed data retention bill in Paraguay raised many concerns because it required ISPs to retain communications details on users for 12 months, which could be handed over to government investigators upon request. According to EFF, the #Pyrawebs campaign rose up when people recognized a new type of state surveillance in the bill. After living through the Stroessner dictatorship, which was characterized by citizen informers (or pyragues), Paraguayans were not ready for another era of surveillance.

Rapporteur's observations: In reference to Internet regulations, Lanza urges legislators to weigh the impact that restrictions will have on online freedom of expression against the benefits the regulations may provide for other interests, such as cyber security. Read more (page 418).

5. Smear campaigns and statements by officials against the press

Concerted campaigns against the media by those in power can be detrimental to public perception and confidence in the press. In Ecuador, President Correa has long aired his grievances against his detractors in his weekly TV show “Enlace Ciudadano”. In February, Correa criticized an El Universo political cartoon by Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla, calling him a “sicario de tinta” (ink assassin). According to reports from Fundamedios, the federal communications body forced Bonil to create a new version of the comic.

In Venezuela, President Maduro and the press have had a similarly antagonistic relationship. In 2014, he commented that newspapers El Universal and El Nacional were hoping that a national peace plan would fail, while adding that he was going to stop the “sensationalist” press from spreading its propaganda. He also accused CNN En Español, among other outlets, of “psychological terrorism” when reporting on deaths that had occurred at the Maracay central hospital.

Rapporteur's observations: Lanza urged state authorities to refrain from making public statements or using state media for campaigns that may encourage violence against individuals because of their views, as well as to avoid statements that may stigmatize the media. Read more (page 417).

The IACHR's next sessions will be held in July, where Lanza will be able to discuss his findings and continue working toward his goal of making the office “a space for dialogue and understanding”.

What is the IACHR?

Created by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1959, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Together with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, installed in 1979, the Commission is one of the institutions within the Inter-American system whose mission is to promote and protect human rights.

Erin Woycik is the IFEX Section Editor for the Americas.

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