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Threats to democracy, detentions for reporting on COVID-19, and calls to uphold human rights standards (Demo)

During April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued an important Resolution, reminding states in the region about important human rights obligations and guarantees they should uphold during the pandemic – we offer below a detailed account of the recommendations related to freedom of expression and information. Before that, however, we celebrate the granting of the Guillermo Cano Press Freedom award to Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya, and recount the grave situation of freedom of expression in Venezuela, which continues to deteriorate. Check out, further down, other important developments, such as the regulation of ‘cyber patrols’ in Argentina; the use of biometrics technology to access health services in Chile; official publicity expenditure in Colombia; press freedom in Nicaragua; the deficiencies of state-led mechanisms for the protection of journalists in the region; and the state of democracy in Brazil. 

A prize for the women journalists of Latin America

Jineth Bedoya Lima was awarded the 2020 Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize in a virtual ceremony celebrated on 30 April 2020. You can check out her profile in our Faces of Free Expression section to learn more about Jineth’s work, including two decades covering the armed conflict in Colombia and press freedom in that country. 

When receiving the award, Jineth celebrated the work of women journalists in Latin America. She stated in her speech that “to seek justice means not to stay silent, and this is a legacy of Guillermo Cano.” She went on to add that her struggle is not against the Colombian government, but “against impunity; the state needs to understand that to protect one journalist is to protect a community. This is not a personal issue, it’s a rights issue; and not of one individual, but of a community.” 

You can learn more through the video produced by UNESCO for the award, or through the video Dignity & Resistance: The struggle against impunity in Colombia, co-produced by IFEX and Colombian IFEX member FLIP, launched earlier this year.

Silencing those reporting on the health crisis in Venezuela

In Venezuela, the number of arbitrary detentions continues to be high. Most cases involve journalists covering the COVID-19 crisis and those expressing views that are critical of how authorities are dealing with the pandemic. During March, IFEX-ALC member Espacio Público reported 120 freedom of expression violations, mostly referring to cases of harassment, censorship and administrative restrictions imposed on media outlets. As I write, partial numbers for the month of April have already reached more than 60 violations.

The lawyer and human rights defender Iván Virgüez, for example, was arrested in Yaracuy on 18 April, for critical comments posted on Facebook. Jesús Hidalgo Rincón, a radio anchor from Zulia, was taken to prison on 23 April. The reporter Natalia Roca was harassed by the Bolivarian Guard while conducting interviews in Caracas on 25 April.  

IPYS-Venezuela reported on 17 April that in less than 24 hours two journalists had been detained in Guárico and Apure. One of them, Eduardo Galindo, was detained on 15 April and remains in prison despite a judicial order for his release. His wife and nephew were also detained when they refused to deliver his computer and other work equipment.  

Restrictions to freedom of expression and information online have also been reported. For months now, the main provider of internet services in Venezuela, Cantv, has been accused of applying a series of measures aimed at restricting Venezuelans’ access to information. On 22 April, for example, the National Assembly web portal was blocked after publishing information on the state of COVID-19 in Venezuela. According to IPYS-Venezuela, at least 12 websites reporting on COVID-19 and linked to the National Assembly and Juan Guaidó have been blocked by the main service providers in the country. 

Regional Standards: COVID-19 and human rights in the Americas

By early April 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted that many governments in the region had declared a “state of emergency”, “health emergency”, or had adopted other containment measures to address COVID-19 that suspended or restricted some rights.

The Commission pointed to measures limiting freedom of expression, access to public information and individual freedom. The IACHR also observed that surveillance technology had been used to track the propagation of the coronavirus, and to store data on a massive scale.

In view of this, on 10 April the Commission adopted Resolution 1/2020. The goal was to provide guidance to states on how to comply with their human rights commitments during the pandemic.  

The Resolution reminds states that any policies or measures restricting protected rights should abide by international standards. They should only be adopted in extreme and exceptional cases, and follow strict rules aimed at ensuring their legality, necessity, proportionality and timeliness. This is especially important to prevent “state of emergency” and similar declarations from being used illegally or in an abusive or disproportionate way, causing human rights violations or harms to democracy.

The critical role of the press, universal access to the Internet across borders, transparency, and access to public information about the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it and to deal with people’s basic needs are explicitly recognized by the Commission. 

The international body also calls on states to refrain from suspending legal proceedings that could be used to ensure the full exercise of rights and freedoms, such as, for example, habeas corpus and amparo. Among such procedures, those used to monitor the actions of the authorities should be especially preserved. 

States are also requested to refrain from restricting the work and movement of journalists and human rights defenders, since these individuals perform a key function during a public health emergency. The Commission reminds states that they are obliged to allow all media, regardless of their editorial policy, to have access to official press conferences. The protection of sources is also an important duty to be upheld.

States are recommended to assess the particular risks faced by journalists and communications workers, provide adequate bio-protection measures, and give them priority access to testing of their own health.

The prohibition on prior censorship should be honoured and no blocking of media sites, platforms or private Internet accounts should take place. Everyone should also be ensured the broadest possible access to the Internet, and affirmative measures should be developed to quickly close the digital divide facing vulnerable, lower-income groups. 

Public order or national security should not be used as justification to impose restrictions on access to public information in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. The bodies and officials that guarantee the right to access public information should give priority to requests for access to information related to the public health emergency, and also proactively report in detail on the impact of the pandemic and on emergency spending. Disclosure should take place in an open format and be accessible to all vulnerable groups, in accordance with best practices internationally. If deadlines for requests for information on matters not linked to the pandemic have to be extended, governments should explain the denial, set a time period in which the obligation will be met, and allow for appeals against such decisions. 

Senior government officials should take special care when making statements or declarations about the evolution of the pandemic. In current circumstances, it is the duty of the authorities to inform the population, and as they do so, they must act with diligence and give reasoned reports that are science-based. Governments and Internet companies must counter and be transparent about any disinformation circulating about the pandemic.

The right to privacy and personal data, particularly sensitive personal information on patients and people being tested during the pandemic should be protected. Governments, health providers, businesses and other economic actors involved in the efforts to contain and treat the pandemic must obtain the consent of such persons when gathering or sharing their sensitive data. Personal data gathered during the emergency must only be stored for the limited purpose of combating the pandemic, and the data must not be shared for commercial or other purposes. People affected and patients shall retain their right to delete their sensitive data.

States should ensure that if digital surveillance tools are used to determine, monitor or contain the expansion of the epidemic or to trace people who are infected, they must be strictly limited, both in terms of time and purpose, in order to rigorously protect individual rights, the principle of non-discrimination, and fundamental freedoms. Transparency and accountability tools should be set up, ensuring independent oversight.

No arbitrary detentions should be carried out during the time a state of emergency is in effect or when restrictions are placed on the movement of persons.

The Commission also called on states to include a gender perspective, based on an intersectional approach, in all government responses to contain the pandemic. Women should hold decision-making positions in committees and working groups that may be set up in response to the COVID-19 health crisis.

On 18 April, the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a statement in which he expressed concern about continued restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information in states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. These included restrictions on the access of journalists to press conferences and the possibility of asking questions about the pandemic; some states have also resorted to criminal law offenses to sanction the dissemination of ideas and information classified as false, and the incitement to panic regarding public health; among others. The Special Rapporteur commented on concrete measures carried out by governments in the region, pointing to potential freedom of expression and information violations. Read the full text of the statement here

In defense of democracy in Brazil 

IFEX members ABRAJI – Brazil, CAInfo – Uruguay and FOPEA – Argentina, together with FOPEP from Paraguay, released a joint statement in which the organisations, representing journalists from the Southern Cone (Mercorsur) – a geographic and cultural region composed of the southernmost areas of South America, south of the Tropic of Capricorn – call for the defense of democracy in Brazil. According to the organisations, public statements asking for discretionary powers for the president and the return of the military dictatorship have been common in past years, but now members of the executive, legislative and judiciary have been openly supporting these positions. The groups testify that, recently, the use of harassment and legal intimidation to silence the press has accelerated to physical violence. The organisations affirm that Brazil, and Latin America, should not repeat past mistakes that led to authoritarian regimes that violated freedom of speech, expression and press, detaining, torturing and murdering journalists and their families. 

Cyber Patrols 

Since 2018, IFEX member ADC has been documenting cases of disproportional and discretionary monitoring of online activity in social media and open data sources by security forces – known as “cyber patrols” – in Argentina. At the time, there were reports of a growing use of open-source intelligence (OSINT) and social media intelligence (SOCMINT) by the state. Civil society groups requested more transparency and the adoption of specific regulation on such practices. In April 2020, organizations met with the Security Ministry to discuss proposals for tackling this issue and requested more legislative and participatory debate in the drafting of any norms in the area. ADC presented recommendations to ensure that the text and purpose of the regulation will respect international human rights standards. 

Protection mechanisms – and their deficiencies 

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) carried out a study looking at official mechanisms put in place by Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Paraguay to provide protection measures to journalists and media workers at risk in those countries. The study affirms that the mechanisms lack the human, technical and economic resources needed to be efficient. Despite such shortcomings, the mechanisms have helped to save many lives. In addition to resolving the deficiencies identified, IAPA called on states to promote a closer working relationship between the various relevant executive and judicial agencies. Increased coordination and clearer responsibilities could improve risk prevention mechanisms for journalists.

Official advertising and personal propaganda

The Fundación por la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) and the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE, for the acronym in Spanish) called on Colombian authorities to increase transparency in the contracting of communication services and the overall official publicity expenditure during the COVID-19 emergency. The organisations want clear rules restricting the use of public funds to personally promote mandate holders. The groups presented the results of a joint study where 2,128 communication pieces were analysed, related to 30 contracts signed by the municipal governments of nine state capitals in 2018. Among those, 1.237 pieces (58%) were categorized as “self-promotion”. 

Fingerprints and public health in Chile

Derechos Digitales has launched a new report featuring the stories of users of the National Health Fund of Chile (FONASA) and their experiences trying to access services through the use of fingerprints as the biometric technology that has been adopted for identification. The study builds on interviews and explores three main issues identified with the use of such technology: constraints in the access to health; management of time; and, safety/privacy and efficiency.

Joint report on Nicaragua highlights media freedom concerns

IFEX-ALC, in partnership with the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation (FVBCH), the World Association of Community Radios – Latin America and Caribbean (AMARC-ALC), and the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), will present a joint report on freedom of expression in Nicaragua to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in its upcoming session, scheduled for 29 June – 24 July 2020. The document points to the continued attacks, threats, intimidation and censorship against the independent press; it also highlights the need to ensure proper conditions for the return of the extensive number of journalists in exile. 

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