On Sunday, the Organization of American States (OAS) will convene in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the 42nd annual meeting of its General Assembly. One matter on the three-day summit’s agenda is a decision with the potential to strike at the heart of an institution that has been the central edifice of journalistic freedom for more than a decade in the Americas: the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
In a combination of private and public meetings, delegates from the 35 member states of the OAS (every country in the region except Cuba) will decide whether to keep the abovementioned Human Rights Commission alive in its present form; whether to modify it by making obligatory a series of “improvements” – three of which are thinly veiled attempts by countries hostile to its authority to neutralize its capacity for action – or whether to relieve it of its autonomy by transferring decision-making power to the OAS General Assembly. If the pendulum swings toward either of the last two options, journalism in the Western Hemisphere will suffer a shattering blow.
Under the umbrella of the OAS Human Rights Commission exist eight Special Rapporteurships. The most dynamic of these is the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, which is presently occupied by Colombian jurist Catalina Botero.
Since its foundation in 1997, the Office of the Spcial Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has "made successful efforts towards the decriminalization of defamation and insult laws in many of the region’s states, has shed light on violations of freedom of expression, and has supported journalists and civil society organizations in defending their right to that freedom,” according to José Miguel Vivanco, the Director of the Human Rights Watch Americas Division. “It is, without exaggeration, the envy of its counterparts in other regions,” he told WAN-IFRA.
The institution is sharply critical of governments who engage in censorship or fail to protect their journalists, and publishes a 300-400-page report every year detailing the state of freedom of expression in each country in the hemisphere, as well as more elaborate country-specific reports. Rodrigo Bonilla Hastings, Press Freedom Missions Manager for WAN-IFRA, calls these reports “an invaluable tool for the defense and promotion of freedom of expression in the region.”
Some of the hemisphere’s heads of state, however, tend to disagree. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, for example, has little regard for the institution that regularly criticizes him for his open contempt for journalistic freedom, and beneath which he has been discreetly laying sticks of dynamite for nearly a year.
Last June, the OAS created a working group whose stated mandate was “strengthening the Inter-American human rights system.” A few hours before the end of the working group’s last session on December 13, 2011, Ecuador put forth a series of recommendations designed to silence the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, packaging them as “improvements” that would reinforce human rights protection in the region.
With Venezuela’s support, three of Ecuador’s recommendations made it into working group’s final list of proposals: one that would choke off its funding, another that would reduce its comprehensive annual reports to 2-3-page overviews, and a third that would curtail its capacity for action by submitting it to a Human Rights Commission-wide code of conduct.
In January 2012, the OAS Permanent Council adopted the proposals, with reservations from nine countries (Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay and the United States) emphasizing the Human Rights Commission’s autonomy and its capacity to accept or refuse the recommendations, and clearly stating their expectation that these would be interpreted in such a way as to strengthen human rights in the region.
After a visit to President Correa on May 10 in Quito, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza drafted a report that ignored the nine states’ reservations, proposing instead a revision to the Human Rights Commission’s statute to be discussed in the upcoming meeting of the General Assembly. In so doing, Insulza invited political interests into the debate, undermining the independence of the Human Rights Commission, and opening the door for states to use political muscle to elude supervision by the Human Rights Commission and its Special Rapporteurs.
Compounding Insulza’s reluctance to defend the Human Rights Commission’s autonomy is the fact that many nations whose press freedom conditions have been investigated by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression “seem ambivalent” about the upcoming decision, according to Frank Smyth, Senior Advisor for Journalist Security to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In an article published yesterday, he explains: “Argentina and Brazil, each of which has its own ongoing tension with the press, have [reportedly] remained largely silent. The Colombian ambassador has said publicly that the proposed changes are not drastic, reported the Colombian weekly Semana. Bolivia and Nicaragua, each of which also has a left-leaning president, are expected to vote with Ecuador and Venezuela.”
Violence, impunity, self-censorship and news blackouts in Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Brazil; government offensives against the press in Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Nicaragua: it isn’t hyperbolic to say that journalism in the Americas is facing one of its toughest periods since the end of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.
“It is deeply worrying to learn that in these critical times, one of the most effective institutions to defend the press risks being effectively dismantled or severely weakened,” said Larry Kilman, Deputy-CEO of WAN-IFRA. “Delegates and leaders should be conscious that now, more than ever, the press needs institutions like the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression.”
Sources: Committee to Protect Journalists,