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Inter-American court recommends ways to end impunity

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 5 Nov 2012 - ARTICLE 19 welcomes the Inter-American Court of Human Rights' decision in the case of Vélez Restrepo et al. vs Colombia which held the government responsible for a climate of impunity in crimes against free expression. Two weeks before the international Day to End Impunity, when ARTICLE 19 joins freedom of expression campaigners worldwide to raise awareness of violence that remains unpunished, we call on the governments in the region to adhere to the principles and recommendations included in the Court's decision.


In August 1996, Vélez Restrepo was attacked by Colombian security forces while filming a public protest which the security forces were trying to suppress. Following the attack, the journalist and his family received death threats. Neither the attack nor the threats were properly investigated. Impunity for these attacks, combined with an absence of state protection measures, eventually forced the journalist to leave the country and seek asylum in the USA. In 2005, he filed a complaint with the Court. ARTICLE 19 intervened in the case earlier in 2012.

In its September 2012 decision (which can be read in full online in Spanish) the Court found the Colombian government responsible for violating a number of rights set out in the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). These included:

• The right to the freedom of expression (Art. 13)
• The right to personal integrity (Art. 5)
• The right to freedom of expression (Art. 13)
• The rights to a fair trial and judicial protection (Arts. 8 and 25)
• The right to freedom of movement and residence (Art. 22)
• The rights of the family and the child (Arts. 17 and 19).

The Court was also critical of the impunity that can be seen in many cases of attacks against working journalists, and of the chilling effect this could have on other journalists.


ARTICLE 19 believes that the Court's decisions should guide other countries in the region where similar problems can be seen. These include Mexico, Brazil and, most recently, Bolivia.

In Brazil, six journalists were killed in 2011 and four journalists were killed in first six months of 2012. The most recent killing took place on 28 October 2012, when Edmilson de Souza, a radio host, was murdered in Itabaina, Sergipe state.

• In Mexico, 71 journalists have been killed and 13 disappeared since 2000.
• In Bolivia, Fernando Vidal, owner and director of Radio Popular in Yacuiba, was set on fire as a result of his investigation into a corruption case.

There are a number of common threads in all these cases: the targeting of journalists simply for doing their jobs and these journalists' criticism of government or local authorities. In addition, the cases are rarely properly investigated, if at all, and perpetrators and instigators are not brought to justice: a classic example of impunity.


ARTICLE 19 welcomes the Court's acknowledgement of three issues:

• The importance of journalists in documenting and covering public protests
• The fact that this type of work is in the public interest
• The authorities' responsibility to enable journalists to do their work.

The Court noted that disseminating information about such protests enables those who see it “to observe and verify whether, during the demonstration, the members of the armed forces were performing their duties correctly, with an appropriate use of force.” The Court also noted that “democratic control by society, through public opinion, encourages transparency in the State's actions and promotes the accountability of public officials in relation to their public functions”.

The Court concluded that violence against one journalist has an impact on the free flow of information in society and that this could lead to self-censorship in the media if undeterred. It stated that it was “reasonable to conclude that the attack perpetrated against Mr. Vélez Restrepo by soldiers while he was covering a public demonstration, and its widespread dissemination in the Colombian media, had a negative impact on other journalists who had to cover events of this type, who could fear suffering similar acts of violence.”

The similarity between the human rights violations in this case and those being experienced in other countries (in particular Mexico and Brazil, where impunity for violence against journalists is rampant), shows how governments need to take all necessary measures to ensure that they do not add to patterns of impunity.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the governments in the region to seriously consider the recommendations of the Court about this case, especially the conclusions relating to the way such impunity leads journalists to self-censor. As the Court says: “impunity encourages the repetition of human rights violations”. Similar conclusions were made in the 2012 Joint Declaration on Crimes against Freedom of Expression and in the UN Resolution on the Safety of Journalists, adopted in September 2012 by the Human Rights Council.

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