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Downward spiral in Nicaragua and Mexico, threats on the rise in Colombia and Peru, but reasons for optimism in Ecuador

Challenges and attacks on the right to free expression in the Americas went unchecked throughout the first half of 2018. Despite the gloomy news coming out of the United States, Mexico and Nicaragua however, there is reason for optimism.

University students and medical doctors dismissed from public hospitals for treating wounded anti-government protesters, march against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, in Managua, 31 July 2018
University students and medical doctors dismissed from public hospitals for treating wounded anti-government protesters, march against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, in Managua, 31 July 2018

INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images

In Nicaragua, repression of demonstrations against the government of President Daniel Ortega has been ongoing, with the situation on a path to becoming one of the bloodiest in recent times. By the end of July, the Nicaraguan Pro Human Rights Association (Asociación Nicaraguense Pro Derechos Humanos) reported that the death toll at the hands of state agents and individuals with links to the government had risen to 448 people.

Since 18 April 2018, when protests against the Ortega government began, there has been a severe deterioration in freedom of expression and access to public information. In addition to the deaths, hundreds of people have been wounded or deprived of their freedom.

Dozens of international organisations are on high alert owing to the seriousness of the situation in the country. IFEX-ALC issued a strong statement condemning the threats, attacks, harassment and censorship being experienced not only by media outlets and journalists, but also by those who have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the president.

The situation in Mexico does not look good either, with at least three journalists killed in one month. On the night of 29 June, an unidentified assailant shot journalist José Guadalupe Chan in the state of Quintana Roo.

Less than a week later, two more journalists were killed. Rubén Pat Cahuich was shot when exiting a bar and Luis Pérez García was killed at his home in Mexico City. The journalist death toll in Mexico thus far in 2018 now stands at nine.

These incidents took place within days of the conclusion of the bloody national elections in Mexico. During the election campaign more than 140 politicians were assassinated.

In Colombia, a shadow was cast over free expression in July as journalists experienced an increase in threats directed at them in association with their work. The Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP) expressed its concern over the increasing number of death threats received by Colombian journalists.

In addition to these threats, assassinations and attacks on civil society leaders and human rights defenders in the country are ongoing. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), at least 132 human rights defenders have experienced some form of attack thus far in 2018. In addition to condemning this violence, the IACHR reiterated its appeal to the Colombian government to urgently implement measures to protect human rights defenders.

Meanwhile, on 28 June an armed man in the United States opened fire, killing five people in an attack directed at the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Maryland that the gunman had harassed for six years on Twitter.

This grievous incident took place within the framework of a growing climate of hostility against journalists and news outlets in the United States.

In July, setbacks were also experienced in Peru as the highest level judicial authorities threatened two journalists with imprisonment if they failed to reveal their sources.

On 12 July, the journalistic directors of the IDL-Reporteros portal and Panamericana Television's Panorama programme were summoned by the Supreme Internal Control Prosecutor (Fiscal Supremo de Control Interno), Víctor Raúl Rodríguez. They were told to hand over audio recordings disclosed by both media outlets that brought to light issues of judicial corruption. They were also pressured to reveal their sources and the circumstances under which they obtained the recordings. The Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) deemed this an unacceptable act of intimidation perpetrated by the Interior Ministry.

The fight against impunity

Although the outlook may seem bleak, there are nonetheless some reasons for optimism, especially regarding rampant impunity in the Americas, where more than 98% of cases involving assassinations of journalists remain unresolved.
In a historic decision, an alliance was formed between the IACHR and the States of Ecuador and Colombia with the objective of investigating the murders of an El Comercio newspaper team earlier in the year. Paul Rivas, Efraín Segarra and Javier Ortega were kidnapped on the border between the two countries while they were carrying out their work, and were assassinated after being held prisoner for several weeks. Faced with the case, first Ecuador, then Colombia, accepted the IACHR's creation of a Special Follow-Up Team that will attempt to clarify what took place, as well as find those responsible for the crime and bring them to justice via a transparent and impartial process.

Edison Lanza, the Organisation of American States' Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, told IFEX, "This is the first time in history that this kind of commission has been created and accepted voluntarily, with regards to crimes against journalists. We have high expectations: primarily, we would like the possibility to prove and verify that we can work in real time, instead of facing a terrible situation where there are hundreds of cases of murdered journalists for years on end, with no one knowing anything about them." Lanza is a member of the Special Follow-Up Team.

The decision represents a U-turn in the Ecuadorean government's position regarding media outlets and freedom of expression. The government of President Lenin Moreno is demonstrating an attitude that is a dramatic departure from that of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, who was harshly critical of the press.

In Brazil there have also been advances in the fight against impunity. The local IFEX member, the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), has been developing the Tim Lopes Programme, which investigates cases of journalist assassinations in Brazil in order to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. Currently, an ABRAJI team is stationed in the city of Braganca in order to open the second investigation to be conducted by the programme, this time looking into the assassination of Jairo Sousa.

In Brief

In Uruguay, a decree that creates a prior censorship standard for scientific investigations is generating a high degree of concern.

In Bolivia a daily newspaper was closed two times in less than a month in an act of intimidation linked to information it was publicising.

And finally, the Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA) has announced the fifth year of its investigative journalism award for works published in Argentina.

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