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The truth remains captive while surveillance spreads in Latin America (Demo)

The Army and the Press in Colombia

On 13 July, indigenous community radio journalist Abelardo Liz was killed in Corinto, in the southwestern department of Cauca, Colombia. According to UNESCO, Liz was shot while covering a protest about land rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) affirms that he was killed during a two-day military campaign to remove members of the Nasa Indigenous group from land near Corinto that they claim is their ancestral territory, but which the military claims is privately owned. According to CPJ sources, a second civilian was also killed in the campaign, and another was injured. Such sources insisted to CPJ that the Nasa community members were unarmed. They also alleged that the military had blocked medical personnel from reaching Liz to provide him with aid after he was shot.

Colombian IFEX member Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) heard witnesses who affirmed that the shots came from a sector where members of the National Army were placed. The organization stated that the army has taken disproportionate actions against indigenous communities, and called for an urgent investigation in the case.

During August FLIP also raised concerns about repeated violations by the Colombian army against press freedom in 2020. Community journalists in other parts of the country have reported on the abusive use of force, threats and arbitrary detentions carried out by armed forces personnel. Victims heard by FLIP have reported that members of the army constantly point out community journalists as guerrilleros.

FLIP also mentioned the case of the secret dossiers (see the article Unnecessary, disproportionate and widespread: The normalization of surveillance in Colombia and Latin America, published here in May 2020), when an investigation revealed a list of 130 individuals subjected to profiling by the Colombian military, including 30 journalists – among them correspondents for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and a National Geographic photographer, all US citizens. According to local magazine Semana, US funds may have been used to create a surveillance scheme put in place by the Colombian army to spy on journalists, politicians, judges and even officers from other units of the armed forces in 2019.

According to FLIP, in July 2020 the US lower house of Congress approved a bill requiring the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, to present a report that assesses allegations that United States security sector assistance provided to the Government of Colombia was used by or on behalf of the Government of Colombia for purposes of unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering directed at the civilian population, including human rights defenders, judicial personnel, journalists, and the political opposition. The bill now goes to the Senate for review.

As late as mid-August, FLIP says that, despite repeated requests for investigations on all the cases above, the National army has not clarified the facts surrounding the violations or informed the public about sanctions applied to its personnel involved in abuses and irregular activities.

And more dossiers… Political surveillance in Brazil 

After the Colombian scandal of the secret dossiers earlier this year, in late July the Brazilian media reported that the Brazilian Ministry for Justice was collecting information on civil servants and academics labeled as “antifascist”. According to the web portal UOL, 579 people were profiled, including a current UN special rapporteur and former national secretary for human rights, all of them critical of the administration of Jair Bolsonaro.

According to UOL, the names were collected from signatures on public statements and after interviews where individuals expressed critical views in relation to the political situation in Brazil, including on issues such as public security.

The dossiers were put together by the Secretariat for Integrated Operations – Seopi (Secretaria de Operações Integradas), one of the Secretariats directly reporting to the Minister. Seopi was granted intelligence competencies via a presidential decree in January 2019. According to news reports, the dossiers were classified as of ‘restricted access’ and deemed as confidential by the Ministry. Columnist Rubens Valent affirms that for the past year Seopi operations have been mainly diverted to investigations of a ‘political nature’.

Fifty civil society organizations, including IFEX member Artigo 19, released a statement saying that the dossiers characterize political persecution. According to them, “it is extremely grave that the federal Executive engages in the practice of surveillance of critical and dissonant voices, in a manhunt that amounts to military dictatorship practices. The alleged dossier represents an explicit threat to the rule of law and constitutional principles, fostering persecution against the free expression of ideas and thoughts, as well as political positions.”

The issue was taken to the Brazilian Supreme Court, which on 20 August declared the practice unconstitutional. The presiding judge stated in her vote that “no one has the attribution to prepare dossiers of such type or to open inquisitorial-type of proceedings”. The Supreme Court ruling bans the monitoring of citizens based on “personal and political choices.”

Columnist Conrado Hubner questioned the Ministry’s actions, which were carried out “[n]ot on suspicion of illicit activity (which would justify police investigation), but on suspicion of thought (the thought with the “anti-fascist” stamp)”, and added, “[a]uthoritarian regimes adopt an arsenal of tools against enemies: alongside summary execution, disappearance, torture and public stigmatization, the thought police is their most insidious way of nullifying opponents.”

The truth remains captive 

On 26 March 2018, a media team from the El Comercio newspaper in Ecuador – Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas and Efrain Segarra – 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 kilometres from where they had disappeared. (Read the article A Deadly Border and the Voice of Silence published in January 2020, for details).

Two years later, families and friends still wait to see the crime solved.

Angulo Arboleda, one the suspects accused of participating in the kidnapping and murder, was freed this past August. He was being held in preventive detention, but given the slow developments in the case, the preventive detention was lifted after the expiration of the legal deadlines. The hearings in the case were cancelled more than five times, for different reasons, causing significant delays.

Earlier this year, in June, another of the accused in the case – Gustavo Alonso Ospina Hernandez – was also freed, on similar terms. He has since not appeared in the Court hearings that continue to take place in the criminal case against him.

IFEX members Fundamedios and FLIP, alongside the families of the victims, have issued an statement expressing concern with this situation: “for [us], these decisions are a clear sign of the risk of impunity that permeates this case; for that reason we call on the States of Colombia and Ecuador to reaffirm their commitment in the fight against impunity in this case, and we urge them to adopt the recommendations put forward by the Special Follow Up Team set up by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.”

In Brief

Censorship in Cuba, Guatemala and Honduras

ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America released a new report on censorship in Cuba, Guatemala and Honduras. According to the report, these countries, despite formally presenting themselves as democracies, have maintained for years authoritarian practices that directly impact the exercise of journalism and the flow of information available to the public. The report points to the control of media outlets by the state, through the use of indirect censorship mechanisms such as arbitrary allocation of official publicity, in particular in Guatemala and Honduras. The document affirms that in all three countries, broadcasting licensing procedures facilitate the concentration of media ownership (in the case of Cuba, via state monopoly). The threats to media independence are many, but instances of arbitrary detentions, disappearances and killings are also a reality, as well as widespread impunity.

Electronic vote in Chile 

Derechos Digitales recently called attention to the fact that in Chile, the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have led authorities to seek technological alternatives to in-person voting in order to reduce the sanitary risks involved. According to the organization, remote electronic voting does not comply with Chilean constitutional principles that require voting to be a personal and secret act. Read more here.

States must accelerate universal internet access policies during COVID-19

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression released a statement calling on states to adopt differentiated measures to incorporate groups in vulnerable situations into their internet access policies. Such policies should be accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The document also calls on states to refrain from interrupting internet access by blocking, filtering, or service outages for political or discriminatory reasons.

Public resources funding persecution against journalists?

On 1 July, 2020, the International Civil Society Organisations Coalition on the Safety of Journalists sent an information request to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in relation to the Mexican State News Agency (Agencia de Noticias del Estado – NOTIMEX). Based on the right to petition, the document asked for investigations into possible abuse of power and irregularities in the management of public funds by the director of the agency, Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor. These facts had been publicly reported by ARTICLE 19, Aristegui Noticias and ITESO’s Signa_lab, and are based on robust evidence and testimonies. The latest findings by the groups pointed to evidence that public funds have been misused to attack journalists and damage freedom of expression in Mexico. To date, the Coalition has not received any response, and attacks against witnesses have been taking place again, especially after a BBC piece on the case was published on 8 August.

An oral history of COVID-19: The Americas

Many IFEX members have now responded to our request to share personal and professional reflections on life and work during the COVID-19 pandemic. From the Americas we have received responses from Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC), Open Media, Fundación Karisma, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), Observatorio Latinoamericano para la Libertad de Expresión (OLA), Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA), Associacao Brasileira de Jornalismo Investivativo (ABRAJI) and Latin American Observatory of Regulation, Media and Convergence (OBSERVACOM).

Adaptation, flexibility and care were all present in the narratives shared.

“We actually have given up our physical office. So we’ve adapted to be 100% remote as a workforce.” Matt Hatfield from Open Media

“[One of our staff] had the idea to look at the impact of COVID internally. She prepared a questionnaire and they worked in groups of 3 or 4, trying to understand how the crisis had impacted on them, on their minds, on the role they have at home, beyond their professional responsibilities. […] Also, we wanted to understand how we did as an organization, at the beginning of pandemic, to respond to it.  A lot of things came out of that exercise, and we are implementing them.” Carolina Botero from Fundación Karisma 

“We transformed our capacity-building agenda and changed all training into a digital format. It is actually much easier to organize events now. I feel people are much more open to engaging virtually than they were before. There has been a change of mindset on both the demand and the supply side. [..] It also seems we are all doing so much more now. It feels like the boundaries of the ‘work hours’ are no longer there; everybody knows where you are and expects you to be available all the time.” Maria José Grillo from FOPEA

IFEX will begin publishing our members’ responses in the coming weeks.

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