Free expression in Americas goes beyond left or right

On Sunday the general assembly of the Organization of American States will convene in Bolivia in the verdant, highland valley city of Cochabamba. The 35 member states (every nation in the region except Cuba) are expected to vote on a measure that, if passed, could curtail free expression and press throughout the hemisphere and put journalists and others at greater risk.

Consider the case of Héctor Francisco Medina Polanco, who was murdered with impunity, like so many others, a year ago this month in Honduras.

Medina was producer and host of the “TV9” news program for the local Honduran cable company Omega Visión. One day in May 2011, while riding home from work on his motorcycle, he was chased by assailants on another motorcycle who eventually closed in enough to fatally shoot him. Though the motive for the killing hasn’t been confirmed, Medina had helped uncover alleged corruption involving local officials and irregularities in law enforcement by local police. He had also reported on land disputes including some conflicts where landless farm workers seized territory held by powerful cattle ranchers and others.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the human rights commission for the Organization of American States condemned his murder, and expressed “concern over the lack of significant progress in clarifying the murders of [by then] 11 media workers in Honduras since 2009″–which is when a coup installed a right-leaning government.

The OAS free expression office, however, doesn’t play politics. Over the past year alone, Special Rapporteur Catalina Botero and her staff have issued detailed statements condemning the murders of journalists in Brazil, Haiti, Colombia, Mexico, and again in Honduras–whose leaders tend to run from moderate to conservative. Botero, who is herself Colombian, also defended the rights of the Ngöbe Buglé indigenous group in Panamá to express freely during protests against mining and hydroelectric development in their ancestral territory.

It’s not surprising then that the office of the special rapporteur for free expression has come under criticism. But it might surprise some to learn that the attack has come from some of the top leftist leaders in Latin America today. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is the OAS free expression office’s biggest critic. He is upset that Special Rapporteur Botero has denounced his attempts to have executives from Ecuador’s leading daily found guilty of criminal libel, and criticized some Ecuadoran laws for contradicting international standards on freedom of expression.

The criminal libel case began with a February, 2011, opinion column in El Universo saying Correa could be charged with crimes against humanity–a steep charge rarely upheld in international courts without clear evidence of extensive and deliberate loss of innocent lives–for the way he put down a violent police strike over cuts to pay and benefits. (The government said five lives were lost in the military operation that ended the strike and freed Correa from a surrounded police hospital where he had been treated for tear gas exposure.) In February this year, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a criminal libel conviction and sentenced El Universo‘s three directors and opinion editor to three years each in prison and a total of US$40 million in damages. Correa later pardoned them, but the damage was done; a chilling precedent had been set.

In January, an OAS working group including representatives of Ecuador and Venezuela proposed a series of recommendations to the way the OAS should handle human rights and freedom of expression issues. The recommendations include preventing the rapporteur from publishing its own report on freedom of expression in the Americas; tightening the office’s funding by not allowing it to seek independent financial support; and creating a code of conduct to increase states’ control. In response, CPJ sent OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza a letter urging him to strongly support the work of the human rights monitoring body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and its special rapporteur for freedom of expression by publicly denouncing any attempts by member states aimed at weakening these institutions.

Individual member states often balk when they are singled out for criticism. Back in 2009, I testified at an OAS free expression hearing and ended up provoking spontaneous complaints from the floor by representatives of each Colombia, Venezuela and the United States for raising specific press freedom issues in each of their nations.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR was created in 1997 to advance freedom of expression issues in the hemisphere. For more than a decade, it has emphasized the need to end impunity in crimes against the press, denounced government censorship, campaigned for the elimination of insult and defamation laws, and promoted access to information. Through the 2000s the office, under different special rapporteurs, examined free expression and press concerns in nations including Colombia, Guatemala, Panamá, Haiti and Paraguay. Last year, the same office issued special reports on Mexico, Venezuela, and Honduras.

Many of these same nations seem ambivalent about the Ecuadoran- and Venezuelan-backed proposals to curtail OAS monitoring of free expression and press conditions. Argentina and Brazil, each of which has its own ongoing tension with the press, have remained largely silent, according to a report earlier this year by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. 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.

Leaders of these nations and others should remember journalists like Héctor Francisco Medina Polanco murdered a year ago in Honduras. And Ángel Alfredo Villatoro, a radio journalist whose remains were found in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa this May after he was kidnapped from his car the week before. And the dozens of other journalists who have been murdered with impunity in countries from Mexico to Brazil.

As powerful perpetrators continue to harass, attack and murder journalists across much of the region, Special Rapporteur Botero is one of the few officials anywhere in the hemisphere who is lending her voice to those who no longer have one, and helping to defend their brave colleagues who continue to report despite a palpable danger. If the debate over the Office of Free Expression is about politics, it is so largely in the most cynical sense of the word.

In the abstract, the OAS debate is about the principles of freedom of expression and the press. That means defending the right of everyone to practice good as well as bad journalism, including the use of hyperbole and worse, and no matter the political leanings. On the ground it means supporting journalists who continue to stand up to corrupt, abusive and criminal actors, knowing they may suffer consequences including paying for their integrity with their lives. It is a matter of security for journalists throughout the region.