On May 7, 2015, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented its 2014 Annual Report, evaluating the state of freedom of expression in the Americas, to the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs of the Organization of American States (OAS). [IACHR Press Release] See also Executive Summary of the 2014 Annual Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR.
The report begins by providing general information about the Office of the Special Rapporteur. The activities of the Rapporteur include, among others: advising the IACHR in evaluating individual cases; recommending initiatives, including precautionary measures to protect and promote freedom of expression; holding public hearings, seminars, and workshops; issuing annual reports; making special statements, for example through press releases, reports, opinions, and declarations, including joint declarations with other rapporteurs; making official visits and promotional trips to Member States; providing technical advisory support to OAS bodies; and coordinating with other organizations to follow up on conditions involving the right to freedom of thought and expression in Member States. The report also discusses the themes on which the Special Rapporteur will focus and the activities he plans to undertake in the next three years. See Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Annual Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, OEA/Ser.L/V/II. Doc. 13 (2015), at 5-31.
Freedom of Expression in Member States
The report goes on to evaluate the state of freedom of expression in Member States. This section includes an analysis of threats and challenges to the freedom of expression confronted in Member States, as well as legal, administrative, or legislative progress in the realm of freedom of expression.
To collect this information, the Special Rapporteur followed the same methodology used for previous reports, which consisted of gathering information from different States, as well as intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.
The issues addressed in this section include, among others: assaults, threats, intimidation, attacks, and other forms of violence against journalists and media outlets; violence in the context of social protests; the use of State laws to punish journalists for disseminating information; freedom of expression and the internet; wiretapping and espionage; freedom of expression in electoral contexts; community radio; murders of reporters and columnists; State officials making stigmatizing statements about the media; surveillance programs; censorship; protection mechanisms for human rights defenders and journalists; and legal reforms relevant to freedom of expression. See id. at 33-345.
Transition to Free-to-Air Digital Television
The Rapporteur then discusses the transition that many States in the region are making from analog to digital television, advising Member States on strategies to make this transition in a way that promotes and protects freedom of expression, as well as access to information and diversity in the media. See id. at 347-390.
In particular, the Special Rapporteur urges States to take steps such that the transition is transparent and inclusive by allowing civil society organizations to participate in drafting regulations and policies on digital television and provides the example of Colombia, where the National Television Commission hosted 13 public forums regarding its digital transition in 2009. See id. at 388.
The Right to Access to Public Information
In this section, the Special Rapporteur focuses on the right to access information, noting that the Inter-American system has elaborated upon this right and that the Inter-American Court has emphasized that this right encompasses the right to seek information as well as positive obligations on the part of States to provide information. See id. at 391-392.
The Rapporteur references the Model Inter-American Law on Access to Public Information and its Implementation Guide, which provides a legal foundation guaranteeing the right to access to information as well as guidance intended to ensure that the law works in practice. The report also describes autonomous supervisory bodies that various States in the region have established to guarantee the right of access to information, to promote the implementation of laws on access to public information, and to resolve conflicts that arise in relation to the disclosure of information. The Special Rapporteur notes that not all of these supervisory bodies meet the Inter-American standards for independence, autonomy, and dispute resolution. See id. at 393-410.
The Special Rapporteur ends this section of his report by emphasizing the need for budgets as well as human resources in order for these bodies to operate and to achieve their purpose of guaranteeing the right to access to information and as well as resolving disputes that arise between individuals and government agencies in regard to accessing information. He also encourages those States that have established these bodies to bring them into conformity with relevant Inter-American standards and urges those States that have not yet done so to adopt relevant laws to defend the right of access to information. See id. at 411-413.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The Special Rapporteur closes the report by noting progress and challenges in different Member States with respect to freedom of information and issuing recommendations directed at Member States.
Violence against journalists and media outlets
The Special Rapporteur expresses concern about violence against journalists in the Americas and urges States to investigate and prosecute those responsible for this violence. Towards this end, he suggests that States create special units to investigate these cases. To protect the safety of journalists, the Rapporteur advises States to take preventive steps such as publicly condemning acts of aggression against the media. He also recommends that States enact measures to help displaced or exiled media workers who are at risk by helping them to either return home safely or remain where they are with economic support. Finally, the Rapporteur highlights the importance of States taking steps to encourage the reporting of violence against women journalists and to address the impunity with which these cases are treated. See id. at 415-416.
The Rapporteur’s report addresses the way that State authorities respond to social protests, including by detaining, threatening, and committing other acts of aggression against those reporting on demonstrations. To address this, the Rapporteur recommends that States take steps to protect journalists who report on armed conflict and social unrest situations and ensure that when security forces do intervene during demonstrations, that they do so in a way that is safe and does not harm individual rights. See id. at 416.
Criminalization of expression and subsequent liability
The Rapporteur notes that in some States in the region, laws continue to criminalize certain types of speech in a way that is inconsistent with Inter-American standards on freedom of expression. He therefore urges States to repeal such laws and to instead enact laws and policies that promote freedom of expression. See id. at 416-417.
The Special Rapporteur expresses concern about reports that State officials in Member States have made statements that discredit and stigmatize journalistic work and that, on some occasions, these statements have been followed by acts of violence. He urges States to take measures such that authorities refrain from making these statements and not use the media for public campaigns that encourage violence against individuals on the basis of their opinions. See id. at 417.
The Rapporteur notes that judicial decisions and government measures in some Member States prohibit the exercise of journalism and place limitations on the media. He reminds Member States that the American Convention prohibits prior censorship and recommends that they end any form of prior censorship, including conditions that could imply that freedom of expression is being censored. See id. at 417-418.
The Special Rapporteur notes that he received complaints about States punishing or rewarding media outlets by distributing government advertising. He advises States to create transparent guidelines regarding the dispersal of official advertising, and to refrain from rewarding or punishing media based on viewpoints or information expressed. See id. at 418.
The Rapporteur’s report also contains information about State regulation of Internet use or access which restricts freedom of expression. He notes the importance of weighing the potential benefits of these restrictions in protecting other rights against the Internet’s role in guaranteeing and promoting freedom of expression The Rapporteur goes on to recommend that States devise regulations tailored to the medium of the Internet, rather than applying radio or television regulations and also that States promote universal Internet access. See id. at 417-418.
Surveillance programs and confidential sources
The Report contains information about security programs and practices that can harm the right to privacy as well as freedom of thought and expression. The Rapporteur recommends that States put into place mechanisms to ensure that surveillance programs are transparent; that they not punish journalists, members of the media, or civil society organizations who, in the public interest, publicize information about surveillance programs; and that they refrain from sanctioning “whistleblowers” who make public information that they reasonably believe to be in the public interest, as long as they have acted in good faith and pursuant to international standards. See id. at 419.
Access to information
The Rapporteur notes that while some Member States have integrated the Inter-American system’s standards on access to information into their own domestic legal systems, the implementation of these laws continues to be an issue. On this basis, he urges States to put into place laws and norms that ensure access to information, to provide trainings to public employees, and to put into place measures to better inform the public about this issue. See id. at 419-420.
Diversity and pluralism in allocating radio frequencies
The Rapporteur’s report notes that the community and indigenous broadcasting sector is not adequately recognized in some Member States. He therefore encourages Member States to take steps such that authorities in charge of radio broadcasting are “technical, independent of the government, autonomous in the face of political pressure, and subject to due process guarantees and strict judicial review.” The Report also contains information about the concentration of ownership or control in the media and the Rapporteur urges States to pass legislation prohibiting public or private monopolies, and to instead work to promote pluralism in the media. See id. at 420- 421.
The mandate of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is to protect and promote the right to freedom of thought and expression. To carry out that mandate, the Special Rapporteur performs a range of tasks, including: visiting OAS Member States, preparing reports, educating the public on the right to freedom of thought and expression, and advising the IACHR. Edison Lanza, a Uruguayan journalist and attorney, currently serves as Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.