Chile is making progress toward the protection of journalists and communications workers. On July 31, 2023, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill that regulates the protection of the profession. The bill goes to the Senate next. The approval of the bill places the South American country at the forefront of legislation to protect journalists at the regional and world level. Nathalie Castillo, the deputy who sponsored the bill, talked to LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) about this step forward and the safety of journalists in the country.
Castillo has been a congresswoman for the Coquimbo region since 2022. She is also a journalist, and was the president of the Chilean Guild of Journalists during the pandemic and social protests. For this reason, she witnessed first-hand aggressions against journalists who were covering demonstrations in the streets. In conversation with LJR, Castillo quoted figures from the Observatory of the Right to Communication: "Since the social uprising of October 2019, there have been more than 300 attacks against the press, committed mostly by state agents. Of these cases, only 60 have been prosecuted."
Against this backdrop, Castillo highlighted the urgency to adopt a safety law for journalists and communications workers in Chile. She joined Mauricio Weibel, a Chilean journalist specialized in civil and military corruption who has been promoting the Model Law for the Protection of Journalists since 2020.
This unprecedented bill has the support of the Heinrich Boll Foundation and UNESCO, and is based on jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and other international justice systems. It establishes a human rights legal standard to regulate the safety of journalists and communications workers around the world, Weibel told LJR in an interview in March 2023.
The challenge is for each country to implement and adapt the principles of the Model Law to the characteristics and situation experienced by journalists and communications workers in their own context.
"This is a very important moment, a historic step forward in terms of regulation and protection of the right to information and communication. It’s known worldwide that if Chile moves forward promptly in this area, it will be the first country to have legislation that protects this practice," Castillo said.
One of the key aspects of this legislation is that it broadens the protected subject and is not limited to journalists, but includes "workers in the world of communications, a very broad definition that was built with contributions from the Executive," Castillo said. In addition, the project has another great contribution, which is to define “aggressions,” which go beyond the physical ones, including virtual aggressions, digital harassment, and surveillance, among others.
Another of the aspects that Castillo highlighted about the bill recently approved by the Chamber of Deputies is that it "establishes the obligation of the State to adopt a public discourse of press protection. This implies, in some way, that the discourse of public authorities must always be in favor of respecting freedom of the press," she said. This point is especially important due to the discrediting of the press by politicians and governments throughout the region, as was the case of Brazil with the former president Jair Bolsonaro.
In addition, "State agents, such as the police, must have a certain measure of training, education, safeguarding of their protocols to avoid aggressions against the press, journalists and communications workers," Castillo said. This is another key aspect in the safety of journalists in Chile and in the region, where police violence against journalists during demonstrations has been reported, as has also happened recently in Peru and Argentina.
Regarding the protection of women journalists, who are particularly at risk for violence against the press, Castillo said that "this law has a special article that defines aggressions against women journalists. This is quite important, since it must be remembered that, in general, women do more investigative journalism on gender and human rights issues, therefore, they are more likely to be victims of aggressions. Article 19 in particular provides protection to all of them, incorporating LGBTQ+ people, in order to ensure they have a life free of violence while practicing their profession."
Castillo said another important aspect of the bill is that it addresses the safety of families of journalists who are assaulted or threatened, because they usually suffer the consequences of these aggressions or become targets themselves. Weibel, who since 2012 has been investigating corruption in the highest ranks of the Chilean army, has been a victim, along with his family, of espionage, persecution and intimidation by the State.
Since this is an "innovative bill that seeks to create a protocol for the protection of journalists and communications workers," they have been questioned as to why it seeks to regulate protection for journalists and not for the whole of society, Castillo said.
"It seems relevant to us because of the increase in aggressions against the press. It seems to us that all these types of actions limit freedom of expression and of the press, and therefore the State, as guarantor of human rights, has to establish ways to protect this right," she said.
Contributor Florencia Pagola is a freelance journalist from Uruguay. She does research and writes about human rights and freedom of speech in Latin America.