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Edison Lanza, next OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, inherits opposition from some member states

When Edison Lanza becomes the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights’   Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in October he will step into a political battle in the Organization of American States (OAS) over the role of his office in the region.

The Uruguayan journalist and lawyer wouldn’t directly address the issue of complaints against his office by members of the Bolivarian Alliance of Latin America (ALBA) in an interview this month with Argentina’s La Nación, but said that his style “favors dialogue” with political opponents in OAS.

Among the biggest problems facing free expression in the Americas, he named "criminalization of expression, with the use of penal code to criminalize the diffusion of information that should be public.”  

Lanza will replace Colombian lawyer Catalina Botero as her term as Special Rapporteur comes to an end. Freedom of Expression advocacy organizations have praised her tenure, but Botero has faced fierce opposition from a few member states.

As Lanza takes over, a movement within OAS member states is trying to diminish the authority of the Special Rapporteur’s office. Bold revisions, allegedly meant to defund and marginalize the post, were voted down in a 2013 OAS meeting, but there was an agreement  for the continuation of the discussions. The agreement was supported by regional powers like Argentina and Brazil.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that “the charge to weaken the office was led by Ecuador and the bloc known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, which also includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and a few Caribbean nations.”

The CPJ also reported that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa “had been at odds with the commission since it denounced his use of criminal libel laws to retaliate against critics in the press”

Many ALBA nations, particularly Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba, have long records of confrontation with media outlets that often result in lawsuits brought against journalists, buyouts or closure of publications under economic pressure. Ecuador and Venezuela have enacted laws that have resulted in the end of publications in recent years. Those actions have been strongly condemned by Botero. The arrest, sentencing and eventual pardon by Correa of several journalists on libel charges has also been a topic of criticism from Botero.

Leaders in those nations have dismissed the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Commission and the Special Rapporteur’s office as a tool of the United States to control foreign governments.

“Washington pays to control and that has a name: neocolonialism and that in our region is unacceptable,” said Correa in the G77 summit in 2014.

Among the proposals, which received initial approval from the OAS general assembly in 2013, was one to ban outside funding for the Special Rapporteur’s office. In an op-ed page article in the Washington Post, César Gaviria, past OAS Secretary General and former president of Colombia, said that the proposal would cripple the office which gets about a third of its funding from Europe. He accused the Bolivarian bloc of degrading freedom and progress in Latin America since the “dark days” of military dictatorships during the Cold War.

Ecuadorian media representatives traveled to Washington last year to testify to the Commission about the troubles of running independent media in Ecuador.

Venezuela and Ecuador governments, however, say they are fighting against the imperialist agendas of corporate media. Private media bosses, strongly opposed to the leftist Venezuelan government, allegedly played a role in a failed 2002 coup against president Hugo Chavez, but attacks by Boliviarian governments are often seen as attempts to silence critics rather than fight imperialism.

In Venezuela, a long battle has been waged between the media and the executive.  Four major TV stations have been closed or politically neutralized since 2002, economic attacks have been waged against newspapers, and legal actions have been brought against journalists.

In 2013, 55 Ecuadorian TV and radio stations were closed due to Correa’s new Communication Law. Subsequent economic pressure has forced various newspapers to close across the country.

In once instance, Correa threatened legal action against national newspapers under the Communication Law for failing in their duty to provide information as a “public service.” He demanded that they dedicate more coverage to a legal battle against oil company Chevron Corp. On another occasion, the government wanted to punish the press for not publishing enough about president Correa’s trip to Chile.

The new Communication Law in Ecuador created a superintendent that controls the media and has the power to punish them.

In Uruguay, Lanza played a role in the composing new communications legislation currently in the nation’s legislature. The bill strives to create a diverse and competitive system in TV and radio, but also grants the executive the right to suspend or revoke broadcast licenses. According to the Peruvian newspaper La República , he has a long record of representing cases of Freedom of Expression in his country, including emblematic cases that have led to legal reform.

Encouraging cooperation with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission will be a challenge for Lanza, as tensions and complaints run deep. Governments in ALBA have long challenged the legitimacy of international governing bodies like OAS and the Human Rights Commission. 


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