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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

OAS Special Rapporteur says governments must protect journalists, as democracy demands a free press




“Protecting journalists is not a recommendation but an institutional obligation of the state," said the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Organization of American States, Catalina Botero, during her presentation at the 10th annual Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas addressing Security and Protection for Journalists, held May 20-22 in Austin, Texas.

Sandra Dunsmore, of the Latin American Open Society Foundations (OSF) program, said that "organized crime threatens the foundations of democracy and freedom of expression," while Stewart Chisholm, director of the press for OSF, highlighted initiatives, such as the Austin Forum, to create collective security strategies to protect investigative journalism from threats against freedom of expression.

In her presentation, "Strategy to Improve Safety and Protection Mechanisms to Combat Impunity," Botero described a complex context that threatens freedom of expression in the American continent. She explained that violence against journalists does not only refer to physical violence but entails institutional violence as well, such as imposed fees and jail sentences. She also defined two levels of impunity in crimes against journalists: the first is total impunity, and the second is partial, where perpetrators of a crime against journalists are sentenced and punished with short prison sentences, but the identities of the masterminds behind crimes are never revealed.

According to Botero, there are three perverse contexts that restrict and attack freedom of expression in the region: institutional weakness, criminality, and the polarization of political discourse, which stigmatizes critical and independent journalists as enemies of the state or as perpetrators of treason.

Botero's position as rapporteur highlights the importance of being able to count on an international doctrine of documents and judicial cases about freedom of expression. Botero said that there is only one case in the Americas where the Inter American Court made the authorities of the Dominican Republic responsible for the forced disappearance of journalist Narciso González, and in a couple of paragraphs, the court's sentence mentioned the state's responsibility for protecting freedom of expression. “We need a strong doctrine, more court sentences, an international judicial body to set a precedent in cases that attack freedom of expression," said Botero.

On an international level, the Organization of American States bases its methods of protection for journalists on reports of institutional challenges against freedom of the press and on precautionary measures. On a national level, governments should apply internal measures focused on prevention, on protection, and on the procurement of justice in order to guarantee the free exercise of journalism. Botero said her agency plans to publish a report describing effective ways to protect journalists and freedom of expression in the American states. She cited four lines of action for the prevention, protection, and procurement of justice:

1. Repeal laws and legal obstacles that criminalize free expression through offenses like slander, defamation, and contempt.

2. Punish public officials that use language or politics in which they identify critical journalists as enemies of the state, thereby enabling security forces to be aware of the importance of free expression and to adopt practices inhibiting the police from attacking journalists during protests, at crime scenes, or while conducting their daily work.

3. Develop protection measures that while safeguarding the physical integrity of journalists, will also permit those professionals to continue working. On this point, Botero highlighted the efforts in Mexico that established a national law for the protection of journalists and human rights defenders, although the law has not yet been put into practice. “Before, the protection of journalists depended on the will of the government, but when it became law, protection became mandatory in each case," she said.

4. Investigate threats and attacks against the press. In Botero's opinion, governments can't use as an excuse the level of impunity that persists in the their countries. Crimes against the press should be considered grave and should receive special treatment. “The reason isn't because the life of a journalist is worth more than other citizens, rather that freedom of the press is an essential element for democracy," she said.

5. Change the logic of the efficiency of penal law in order to avoid that punishments are later lowered in cases of crimes against freedom of expression, and implement longer sentences for crimes committed against journalists.

Botero said that the best tool for achieving the implementation of these recommendations is to talk about concrete examples of good practices. In her experience, governments tend to say that recommendations are impossible to enact, but when organizations show that the practice has been adopted elsewhere in the region, it is more likely that other governments will follow suit.


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