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Ecuadorian journalists kidnapped, defending women's rights, and Guatemala under the microscope: March in the Americas

It was an intense month: a journalist was murdered in Mexico, a Brazilian councilwoman was assassinated in Rio, Venezuela was caught in an information trap, and in the United States, free expression faltered.

A piece of street art by artist Luis Bueno shows councilwoman Marielle Franco from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3 April 2018
A piece of street art by artist Luis Bueno shows councilwoman Marielle Franco from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3 April 2018

Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images

March was an intense month in the Americas. Amidst attacks and threats on free expression around the continent, there were also voices and campaigns that sought to put an end to the climate of insecurity that thousands of people live in.

Venezuela continues to be one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism freely in the Americas.

The IPYSve Press Freedom Index, published for the second year in a row by IFEX member organisation Institute of Press and Society Venezuela (Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela), concluded that a lack of transparency and violence were the biggest threats to free expression in Venezuela. The repressive institutions under Nicolás Maduro's regime were responsible for dozens of acts of extreme violence against protesters and journalists.

The most recent case, registered by Public Space (Espacio Público), occurred on Thursday, 22 March 2018. Rafael Hernández, a journalist with TV channel NTN24, was threatened and attacked by members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana) for covering a protest by retirees in Caracas.

The attacks multiplied, and involved people in all kinds of powerful positions in Venezuela. On Tuesday, 6 March, journalist Maibort Petit announced on Twitter that she was being threatened by Alexis Chacón Molinet, the legal counsel for Venezuela's national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

Given the groundswell, IFEX'S Latin American and Caribbean network (IFEX-ALC) raised its voice. In a statement, IFEX-ALC expressed deep concern over the conditions that independent journalists face in Venezuela, and the increase of threats, assaults, and harassment against media outlets and reporters.

In the past few weeks, the right to free expression, access to information and independent, professional journalism continued to deteriorate. One way it manifested was through the legal harassment of editors at Alfredo Meza, Ewald Scharfenberg and Joseph Poliszuk - as well as writer Roberto Deniz - were among those affected, according to a joint statement by organisations from 15 different countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Another country that was under international scrutiny for its deplorable stance towards freedom of expression was Guatemala.

At the beginning of March, the Guatemalan Association of Journalists, (Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala, APG) lamented that the Guatemalan State is not sufficiently committed to guaranteeing press freedom and freedom of expression.

To address the issue, IFEX accompanied its member Cerigua, and - along with the International Network for Human Rights (RIDH) - they presented an alternate report on Guatemala before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The report examines the deteriorating situation for journalists in the country since 2012 - which was the last year that Guatemala was reviewed by the Committee.

After hearing all sides, the UN Committee concluded: "We are worried about violence, harassment, and the stigmatization of human rights defenders and journalists in Guatemala."

Gender and reports

Another important event last month was International Women's Day, on 8 March. The ability to exercise freedom of expression is an issue that is also tied to gender inequality around the world.

IFEX took the opportunity to improve our coverage and perspectives on gender-related issues and how they directly impact freedom of expression. This is why we created an information hub specifically dedicated to gender and sexual diversity.

In the same vein, the Paraguayan Union of Journalists (Sindicato de Periodistas de Paraguay) was an IFEX member that had an active presence at the country's march on International Women's Day.

Reporters Without Borders also joined these initiatives. In time for International Women's Day, it published a report called "Women's Rights: Forbidden Subject," which examines the difficulties that journalists - both men and women - face when reporting on women's rights.

Fundación Karisma relaunched its "Machitroll Alert": a campaign that seeks to support women in navigating the internet safely, and in a manner that allows their voices to be respected.

"The internet that we imagine is one in which we can develop freedom of thought, expression and identity." It is precisely this line of thinking that inspires our Chilean member, Digital Rights (Derechos Digitales).

In her essay: "The internet: A political space for us" published on the Chilean web, analyst Gisela Pérez de Acha recounts the violence she suffered as a result of the following tweet:

"It is possible to imagine a different world and internet, in which our relationship with technology is one where we are equals," Pérez stated.

In Peru, an investigative piece called "Disappeared", was published. The interactive story reveals some of the obstacles faced in the search for missing women in the country.

Murders, attacks and kidnapping: A region on edge

Despite the campaigns and pressure to increase safety and freedom in the region, grave human rights and free expression violations were still committed.

In Mexico, another journalist was killed - the third so far this year. Leobardo Vázquez Atzin, 42, was murdered on the night of 21 March in the municipality of Gutiérrez Zamora.

On 15 March, Brazilian councilwoman Marielle Franco was shot dead. She was an activist and human rights defender in Brazil who was extremely critical of the militarization of the favelas, or informal settlements in Rio. She had been selected to lead a commission that would have regulated police operations in those areas.

Ecuador and Colombia are embroiled in a complicated matter: a team of Ecuadorian journalists from El Comercio newspaper was kidnapped by a group of FARC dissidents, on the border between the two countries.

At the time of publishing this article, the journalists had yet to be freed, but negotiations for their release had been underway for several days.

At the beginning of March, armed men murdered an indigenous communications professional in northern Cauca, Colombia. Details of the crime remain elusive.

While there were no deaths to mourn or physical attacks to condemn, another country where free expression genuinely suffered was the United States, according to IFEX members.

A report revealed that the relationship between Best Buy and the FBI was a lot cozier than we thought. Several employees of the tech company received a salary from the intelligence agency for flagging potentially "illegal material" belonging to customers getting their computers fixed.

In similar news, Congress passed a law that requires online platforms to censor internet users in order to "combat sex trafficking."

In Brief

A proposal to regulate social media sites in Nicaragua was strongly criticised and considered to be "a threat and abuse of the already limited freedom of information and communication."

In Jamaica, discussions on an online data protection law shed light on the role that the media plays in upholding source confidentiality.

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