Who will stand up for free speech at the OAS?

Tensions over the role of the media in politics has reached a boiling point in Latin America.

    The Organisation of American States (OAS) has been investigating government harassment of the media [EPA]

    Paris, France - Things are looking brighter than they have in a long time in Latin America. Poverty is falling, redistributive social and economic policies are beginning to moderate deeply entrenched structural inequality, and democratic institutions are gaining greater strength and vitality across the region.

    Some issues remain contested territory, however, notably the role of the media in politics. In fact, tensions over the media have percolated all the way up to the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organisation of American States (OAS).

    The Special Rapporteurship is under fire for exposing government tactics of harassment against the media. In 2011, more than 40 press releases expressed the agency's disapproval for intimidation and restrictions against the media. Journalists were arrested for covering protests in the US, and convicted for crimes of defamation in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, for example. News sources suffered armed attacks in Honduras and Mexico, while other media were fined in Venezuela and Ecuador. Worse, the office reported the murder and disappearance of 30 journalists in ten countries.

    Censoring the Special Rapporteurship

    On December 13, 2011, Ecuador took advantage of the waning minutes of a meeting at the OAS to put six proposals on the agenda[DOC]. The occasion was the completion of the final report to strengthen the region's human rights system, and the motion was directed at the Special Rapporteurship - an independent agency within the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The special commission compromised on three recommendations, none of which, if you ask Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, seems to serve the ostensible objective of increasing guarantees on free speech.

    The first recommendation mandated that all reports should be combined into one single overarching annual report (VII.ii.1.A.i.). This means that the extensive, independent annual reports produced by the Special Rapporteurship could be replaced by a brief activity report within the IACHR, thereby significantly reducing the impact and transcendence of monitoring activities.

    Mexican journalists in peril

    The second recommendation proposed the allocation of "adequate, sufficient and balanced" resources to all offices (VII.ii.7.B.c.). Created as an independent office in 1997, the Special Rapporteurship has generated its own budget, which turns out to be consistently higher than that of other, underfunded OAS offices. Approval of this recommendation could undercut the Rapporteurship's investigative efficiency.

    Third, a code of conduct covering all offices of the IACHR was proposed for the purpose of regulating relations with the member states (VII.ii.6.A.g.), possibly eroding the independence of the Rapporteurship. 

    While there is little a government can do against NGOs - except expel representatives of Human Rights Watch, as Venezuela did in 2008 - the OAS is an inter-governmental body where sovereign states have considerable policy leverage. Now the question is whether other member-states will use their sovereign voices to re-assert the importance of free speech in the Americas.

    Media and the state: a polarised battleground

    Notwithstanding differences in national context, conflicts between governments and the media are escalating and polarisation is deepening. While countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay have repealed defamation laws, others frequently use such legislation to punish critical opinions.

    Mexico is amongst the most dangerous places to report in the world because of high levels of insecurity. In Ecuador, the government and media conglomerates accuse each other of dictatorship over information, whereas in Argentina, the efforts of Cristina Kirchner's government to break a monopoly on print paper supply held by Clarin and La Nacion led both sides to proclaim their defence of freedom of expression.

    The corporate-owned media is not exactly a government's best-friend in Latin America. TV, radio and the press expose and challenge governments, leading, for example, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to fire multiple ministers in 2011, following media denunciations of rampant corruption scandals. By the same token, Latin America's media is not without its own faults. There are widespread problems of monopoly, murky financial arrangements and political interests among the economic elites controlling mass media outlets. Much could be said about poor journalism, sexism and racism as well.

    Yet as distasteful as sexist manifestations in the media may be, such as the mocking of female government ministers by 6to Poder in Venezuela, they are not legitimate reasons for closing the newspaper, much less arresting its owners. In fact, the IACHR protects harmless freedom of speech as well as provocative - even offensive - media freedoms, recommending in its 2009 Annual Report to eliminate, inter alia, the crime of insult. As unpleasant and aggressive as the media may be, guarantees for freedom of expression are essential to the vitality of democracy.

    "Truth may only be known in the process of public debate, without restrictions ... the media is a key space for civil society to hold governments accountable."

    It is attributing the media more power than it deserves to accuse newspapers and TV stations of "kidnapping the truth". Claims to "truth" cannot be regulated because no one has an exclusive claim to the truth, as in Inquisition times. Truth may only be known in the process of public debate, without restrictions.

    In addition, in a region where democratic institutions and checks and balances remain weak, and where some executive branches exercise extensive control over the judiciary, the media is a key space for civil society to hold governments accountable.

    Taking hemispheric stands

    The episode regarding the OAS Rapporteurship obliges us to reflect on the extent to which local politics impact international relations, how interconnected our politics are. Of course, the debate on freedom of expression is no longer restricted to Ecuador, and what might once have been considered a domestic issue has long since become a crucial hemispheric concern involving both state and non-state actors.

    How can a small country such as Ecuador single-handedly change hemispheric norms in the OAS? Well, it cannot. The fundamental principle of the OAS is a vote by consensus, and while Ecuador has been the leading voice in seeking to erode media freedoms, it is also true that the vast majority of member states have remained silent. While Ecuador's aggrieved tone is no novelty, and the support of the Bolivarian countries is no surprise, the timid reaction among other member states is more disturbing. This silence may be interpreted in many ways, notably as tacit support.

    Those governments supporting deepening democracy must stand up to support strong and objective OAS monitoring efforts of abuses of freedom of speech and the media. At the next meeting of the OAS, scheduled for January 25, the influential democracies of Latin America need to publicly draw the line, to firmly defend the values of dissent and media freedom. 

    The recommendations of December 2011 limiting the Rapporteurship are final, but member governments can still shape their meaning and express differing interpretations of the language. Artful, agile diplomacy by leading governments can control the damage and defend respect for media freedoms throughout the hemisphere.

    Brazil's President Rousseff stated she preferred the "noise of free media to the silence of dictatorships". She needs to make her voice heard at the OAS. This is the time for Brazil and other regional leaders to exercise hemispheric influence, the opportunity for democratic governments to lead by example.

    2012 is looking bright in Latin America. It will look even brighter once governments and the people enjoy open debate and free contestation.

    Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples' rights in the Amazon.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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