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A border tale, rap on trial, goodbye Newseum, and more (Demo)

The story of coordinated efforts – both among journalists and civil society organizations, as well as international bodies and states – tells us a lot about solidarity and resilience, but also about how much room there is to improve cooperation to solve crimes against journalists.

A Deadly Border and the Voice of Silence

On 26 March 2018, a media team from the El Comercio newspaper in Ecuador – Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas and Efrain Segarrawas – disappeared. They had been working on a story in the town of Mataje, on the border between Ecuador and Colombia, when they were kidnapped by former guerrilleros from FARC. They were taken to Colombia, and on 13 April, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno publicly confirmed that they had been murdered by their captors. The bodies were only recovered three months later by the Colombian Special Forces, dozens of kilometers from where they had disappeared. 

The media had travelled to the northern border of Ecuador to report on the growing presence and operation in the country of a dissident FARC group called Frente Oliver Sinisterra, headed by a man known as ‘Guacho’. 

The journalists’ families and friends fought to learn more. They complained about the lack of official information and the secrecy. They needed access to information in order to understand exactly what happened to their loved ones. 

Information released during and after the kidnapping by the governments of Ecuador and Colombia was at times contradictory and, as a rule, incomplete. There was no clear account of how the negotiations took place, what the demands of the kidnappers were or the replies provided by authorities. 

A group of 20 reporters from Ecuador and Colombia joined forces to investigate, as well as to ensure that the story that the El Comercio team was reporting on stayed alive. They worked for six months in 2018 and visited the border region three times. They describe one visit:

“Mataje felt like a ghost town; no one was out. Despite the suffocating heat, the doors and windows of the houses remained locked.”

They only managed to interview one local resident at that time, who told them that the El Comercio team had arrived at Mataje wanting to interview people; “but people hide […] they don’t like to inform” – this is the “voice of silence”, he added. 

The result of their investigation, the Deadly Border project, was published by 16 international news outlets in October 2018 and confirmed inconsistencies in the official accounts, as well as key pieces of information that continued to be treated as confidential by authorities. Their report also confirmed that the region remains a critical information desert, on both sides of the border. 

In March 2019, one year after the kidnapping, El Comercio published an article affirming that “national media outlets stopped sending teams from Quito; […] One can only travel to Mataje with a convoy of military or police officers; very few have done it”.  

Significant pressure and uproar by civil society and journalist groups, as well as by the public, led to an unprecedented decision taken by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [the Commission]: the establishment of a Special Follow-up Team (ESE, for the acronym in Spanish). By July 2018, the ESE began its work, which would include visits to Ecuador, independent contributions to the investigation, ensuring access to information on the progress of the investigations, and public hearings during the period of sessions of the Commission, and which would culminate in the production of a report.

The final report was originally scheduled to be presented in December 2018. It was finally presented in December 2019, during a meeting at the Commission’s headquarters in Washington DC. Members of Javier, Paul and Efrain’s families, representatives of the Ecuadorian and Colombian governments as well as representatives of civil society organizations following up the case, including IFEX members Fundamedios and FLIP, were present. 

The report is divided into four chapters, followed by a section on recommendations. The first two chapters focus on the relevant facts, before and during the kidnapping and execution of the journalists. The third and fourth chapters describe the follow-up investigations that took place in both countries. The recommendations are organized into three key areas: the progress of investigations, the right to the truth, and no-repetition guarantees.   

The report refutes the thesis that the journalists had put themselves at risk. The evidence confirmed that they had asked for authorization and received clearance to access an area that was under the control of the state. It points to insufficient protection measures taken by the state before their kidnapping, and a lack of coordination between military, police forces and other authorities during the kidnapping. It also recommends that Ecuador set up an investigative procedure to look at the operation of the Crisis Committee which was created to handle the case in 2018, and stresses that, as a transnational crime, Colombia and Ecuador should consider a joint investigation into the matter.

Another recommendation is the establishment of a common protocol to exchange information, and the creation of preventive measures to ensure that there can be continued coverage of what takes place in the region without risk to journalists. 

The families and colleagues of the murdered journalists issued a statement after the launching of the ESE’s final report. They recognized its importance as a first step towards the identification of those responsible for what happened to the El Comercio team. They called on the states to comply with the Commission’s recommendations, especially the creation of a special commission with independence and transparency to clarify some pending issues.  

Fundamedios has requested that the Commission and its Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression continue monitoring the case. 

The kidnapping and murder of the three journalists must not be treated as an isolated fact, unrelated to the critical situation of public order and high risk which is the reality of the Colombia – Ecuador border region. This is also the message shared by the Deadly Border team and, ultimately, by Javier, Paul and Efrain themselves. This frontier region, in the north of South America, has become a land of violence and fear, and reporting on what happens in the area is not only an exercise of freedom of expression, but an act of great courage by those who want to see peace and justice returning to these isolated parts of the continent. 

Respecting, protecting and guaranteeing rights in the context of protests 

In mid-December 2019, the Organization of American States (OAS) Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression launched an important report on Protests and Human Rights, which details the rights and obligations that should guide state responses to public demonstrations. The report is especially timely and opportune given the many protests that took hold of the region in late 2019 (as well as internationally) and the extremely problematic decisions and actions taken by government authorities to tackle the demonstrations, which resulted in widespread violence and cases of death.

As the report stresses, states have an obligation to respect protests, including allowing demonstrators to decide the place, time and format of protests, irrespective of prior authorization. Protests in the form of marches and rallies are protected, as well as roadblocks, cacerolazos [drumming pots and pans], vigils, parades, conferences, and sporting, cultural, artistic, and other events. The report notes that, in recent years, the United Nations Rapporteurs also included demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, and peaceful occupations in their reports as part of the exercise of the rights to peaceful assembly and association. The report also clarifies the scope of the provision on “peaceful unarmed exercise” inserted into article 15 of the American Convention on Human Rights. 

The report goes on to delineate states’ obligation to protect and facilitate protests, including by acting on the basis of the lawfulness of protests and public demonstrations and on the assumption that they do not constitute a threat to public order, even in cases where they are unannounced.

The text then covers the use of force by governments in extreme and absolutely necessary cases, noting that international law already bans the use of lethal ammunition and requires the adoption of clear and restrictive rules on the use of less-than-lethal weapons. The adoption of Operational Protocols to guide the behaviour and work of police forces is recommended, as well as the exclusion of armed forces from any operations tackling public demonstrations. 

The obligation to guarantee rights within the context of protests is paired with the obligation to investigate violations, persecute and punish those responsible, and also to take proactive measures to constantly monitor the behaviour of security forces during demonstrations, as a preventive action.

Specific chapters in the report are dedicated to the importance of the internet to protesters, and governments’ obligations in relation to online freedom of expression and privacy guarantees, as well as to the need to ensure transparency and access to public information, before, during and after demonstrations. 

The Special Rapporteur’s report ultimately emphasizes that the right to protest, as a form of participation in public affairs, is essential because of the structural inequalities that still characterize the region – “[m]ost impoverished sectors of our continent face discriminatory policies and actions and have just begun to have access to information on measures that affect their daily lives. The traditional channels of participation which they should have access to, in order to make their demands public, are often curtailed”.

The full report is available in English and Spanish

The Repression Archives

IFEX member ARTICLE 19 launched a website with more than 310,000 images illustrating forms of repression carried out by the Mexican state between the 1960s and 1980s. The archives are a testimony to illegal surveillance of political opposition, illegal detentions, interrogation procedures that amounted to systematic torture, and forced disappearances. According to the documents, surveillance was carried out not only against the victims, but also their families and others working on their cases. 

The images are still being classified, but much material is already available at the website, designed to serve as a tool for families of victims of human rights violations, students, researchers and the general public.

The launch of the project is an important step toward fulfilling Mexicans’ right to information, but a lot of material is still to be disclosed by the government. The files from that period have been subject to varying degrees of openness over time, and since 2015 they can only be accessed through information requests under the Mexican Freedom of Information Law. The documents published on the project’s website have been donated by members of the former Truth Commission from the State of Guerrero.  

The project’s organizers believe that the opening of the historical archives is a matter of transitional justice. They may not represent all the truth about what happened, but they are an important source of information about how the government at that time classified and documented information about its own acts of violence. 

An introductory video presenting the project is available here.

Rap on Trial

Late 2019 saw the publishing of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, a book by Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis. The book looks at different cases presented to US courts, in order to expose how rap lyrics have been used to criminalize, convict and imprison rappers. The authors collected information on the high number of rappers incarcerated due to their songs, and include cold cases, in which lyrics were used to reopen files.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Dennis affirmed that “[w]e have searched widely, and, based on our research, rap is the only fictional art form treated this way […]. No other musical genre and no other art is used in the same way or to the same extent”.

The debate has been gaining attention in the public sphere since 2014, but cases date from much earlier. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union  (ACLU) of New Jersey documented 18 cases in which different courts considered the admissibility of lyrics; they were allowed in nearly 80% of cases. In 2014, The New York Times reported on the case of Vonte Skinner and the use by the prosecutor of his rap lyrics: “[d]uring Mr. Skinner’s trial in 2008, the prosecutor read the jury 13 pages of violent lyrics written by Mr. Skinner, even though all of the lyrics were composed before the shooting (in some cases, years before) and none of them mentioned the victim or specific details about the crime”.

Andrea Dennis, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, organized a website where she makes available comprehensive scholarly research on the issue, as well as testimonies from rappers. Rapper Tiny Doo shared his views on the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases: “It signals to me that Jim Crow is very much alive … I think that in this country we love the nostalgic stories of how far we’ve come in transforming … and we have not. If we don’t remain vigilant about these things, we never will.”

Briana Younger, music writer and editor with The New Yorker, affirms that:

“The admissibility of rap lyrics and videos as evidence is often framed as a legal matter, but it is really about race”. 

Appeals pile up in the direction of the US Supreme Court, while a more definite position on the matter is awaited. Meanwhile, it’s apparent that the debate surrounding rap lyrics seems to go beyond discussions of legitimate and illegitimate limits of free expression, or the exact meaning and extent of artistic expression, to touch on issues of discrimination and the voices of minorities and marginalized groups. 

In Brief 

Bomb attack in Rio de Janeiro

Porta dos Fundos (Backdoor) is a well-known and popular Brazilian comedy group, and also the owner of a production company in Rio, where it records video content made available through social media and other means. In 2018, one of its productions was awarded an Emmy. The group produces an end-of-year special. The 2019 episode was made available through Netflix and generated enormous controversy for its representation of a gay Jesus

Some religious groups considered the video offensive and collected more than two million signatures requesting its removal. Religious leaders also called for a boycott of Netflix. A number of political figures also got involved, including members of the family of the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. His son said, via Twitter, that the producers were ‘trash’ and that the episode was an attack on Christians. 

According to news reports, however, Netflix did not see a reduction in the number of subscriptions in the country – on the contrary, the controversy apparently led to increased interest in the video. 

On 24 December, a group of at least four people attacked the Porta dos Fundos studio in Rio with molotov cocktails. No one was injured. A couple of days later, a video, allegedly by an obscure extreme-right group, started to circulate online, claiming they were behind the attacks. The crime remains under investigation. 

A member of Porta dos Fundos affirmed in an interview that this type of intolerance is becoming more and more common in Brazil.  

New initiative to document violence against journalists in Nicaragua

In October 2019, the collective Periodistas y Comunicadores Independientes de Nicaragua (PCIN) launched a protocol to monitor attacks against press freedom. The document is based on international standards, and it used as a reference the work and experience of Colombian IFEX member Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP).

In late December, PCIN published its first report. According to the group, 33 cases were documented between 1 October and 15 December 2019. The cases represent 120 violations that took place in the provinces of León, Managua, Masaya, Carazo, Matagalpa, Estelí, Nueva Segovia, Madriz and Bluefields. The most common violations were threats (26), obstruction of journalistic work (25), harassment (25) and physical attacks (16). 

Digital Due Process of Law

IFEX member Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC), from Argentina, has just launched a new report raising concerns about the adoption of specific rules to ensure fundamental judicial guarantees in the digital context. One of its main interests is regulations on the use of digital evidence and the use of certain investigative technologies that could, if poorly applied, result in serious risks to people’s rights, in particular to their privacy. The organization proposes seven recommendations to ensure this issue in considered within a human rights framework:

  1. Ensure a broad and participatory process as a legitimacy requirement for any legal and policy measures taken;
  2. Design rules that aim to tackle the lack of ‘parity of arms’ between state and individuals resulting from the use of technological tools;
  3. Rethink the concept of privacy as set forth in the Argentine Constitution, which is closely associated to the idea of property over a closed physical space;
  4. Pass dedicated legislation on the treatment of personal data by security forces;
  5. Forbid or severely limit the use of government-led hacking for investigative or surveillance purposes;
  6. Protect the encryption of communications;
  7. Avoid the uses of artificial intelligence that can lead to situations of discrimination and stigmatization  

You can read the full report, in Spanish, here: El Debido Proceso Digital

Goodbye to Newseum 

On 31 December 2019, the Newseum closed its doors, after 12 years of operation. The museum was dedicated to the history of journalism and the US Constitution First Amendment. According to different sources, it has been suffering from financial difficulties for several years. 

As described by the Smithsonian Magazine, the museum “has hosted dozens of temporary exhibitions on themes including the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, presidential photographers, the Lincoln assassination, the Vietnam War, as well as various exhibitions on editorial cartoonists and exceptional journalists”.

Jack Limbert lamented the end of Newseum Front Pages – the museum published the front pages of newspapers across the country, daily.  According to him “[a]ll those front pages – from places like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Orlando – showed that what’s big news in Washington DC and New York is rarely big news in the rest of the country”.

According to CNN, the Freedom Forum, the nonprofit that runs the museum, promised that its work will continue in new locations and in new ways.

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