In almost two weeks, a new edition of the training program on international standards of freedom of expression aimed at judges, magistrates and other judicial operators in Ibero-America led by UNESCO and the IACHR's Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, in collaboration with the Knight Center, will begin online classes.
The course "International Legal Framework for freedom of expression, access to public information and protection of journalists," which has already reached almost 10,000 judicial operators in the region, coincides this time with the crisis facing the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Applications will close on April 5.
The pandemic has not only forced us to face challenges in the area of health and the economy, but also in how to guarantee human rights.
“Especially in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus-related pandemic, decision-making by the different State actors has to go through a process of checks and balances to guarantee that fundamental rights continue being protected with reasonable emergency measures that governments have to take,” Guilherme Canela, Chief of the UNESCO Section of Freedom of Expression and Security of Journalists, told the Knight Center.
“In this sense, the judicial operators; particularly judges, magistrates, the public ministry; they have to be vigilant so that the international standards related to these fundamental rights – and in the case of our course, related to freedom of expression, access to public information and the safety of journalists – are being guaranteed in relation to the measures that governments are taking to combat this current crisis,” Canela added, highlighting the importance of this type of training.
And the right to freedom of expression has been one of the most violated in the midst of measures taken to contain the virus. It’s a situation that has been experienced since Li Wenliang, a Wuhan hospital doctor who warned colleagues in December about a possible new virus, was accused of “making false comments.”
The actions in China, where the locations of at least eight people who were allegedly detained for reporting on COVID-19 are still unclear, are not the only ones. Human Rights Watch has called out governments such as those in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Burma (Myanmar) for internet blockages, or Thailand, which has prosecuted journalists for reporting. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its acronym in French) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have rejected decisions made in Brazil, Honduras and Venezuela, where at least one journalist was even arrested for reporting on COVID-19.
“In that sense, we are sure that the course has tremendous relevance because there will surely be doubts, there will be areas where there are ambiguities and at the end of the day the last word will be for the judicial powers on what measures are in line with international standards and which measures are not in line with international standards,” Canela said.
Concerns about guaranteeing fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, have been expressed by various organizations around the world. On March 19, the guarantors of freedom of expression and freedom of the media from the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Representative for Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement with recommendations to prevent further violations.
“The right of access to information means that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists,” the statement reads. “Journalism serves a crucial function at a moment of public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions. We urge all governments to robustly implement their freedom of information laws to ensure that all individuals, especially journalists, have access to information.”
In the statement, the experts highlighted governments' obligation to provide truthful information about the pandemic, and to ensure that it reaches all people, including those without internet access.
In Latin America, one of the most visible restrictions occurred in Venezuela, where journalist Darvinson Rojas was detained by Agents of the Special Action Forces (FAES) of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) on March 21 in Caracas. Journalists and the country's freedom of expression defense organization pointed to it as retaliation for his coverage of the coronavirus in Venezuela. At a hearing on March 23, Rojas was charged with instigating hatred and public instigation. Although the journalist was released on April 2, the charges he was accused of were not clear.
Also in Venezuela, the director of the La Verdad de Vargas newspaper, Beatriz Rodríguez, was questioned by the prosecutor’s office after publishing information about a new case of coronavirus in the region.
RSF condemned the attitude of the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who “has multiplied his public attacks against the press, which he considers responsible for a ‘hysteria’ aimed at generating panic in the country.”
“This radicalization and intensification of the attacks against the media is extremely disturbing”, said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau, according to the organization. “President Bolsonaro is again targeting the messengers instead of the real enemy and has become more and more irresponsible by the day. During this period of pandemic, the Brazilian government has more important things to do that persecute the media, whose news reporting is now more essential than ever."
CPJ also condemned Brazil, this time for the decision to provisionally suspend deadlines for authorities to respond to requests for information and prohibit appeals if they are denied. The move, according to CPJ, will take place for the duration of the "state of calamity" due to COVID-19.
“Amid a growing public health crisis, it is more vital than ever for Brazilian citizens to have access to reliable information,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in a statement. “Congress should reject this attempt to use emergency measures as an excuse to clamp down on freedom of expression or roll back constitutionally guaranteed access to information.”
El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman denounced that the press has faced a series of restrictions on their work by the National Civil Police and the Armed Forces in the midst of the quarantine taken to deal with the crisis, DW reported. According to the ombudsman, agents have even destroyed journalistic material, the site added.
By a decree of the President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, a state of emergency was established that suspended some articles of the Constitution for seven days, including the one that guarantees freedom of expression without censorship.
In the Dominican Republic where a curfew was decreed, some journalists have been detained for violating it. This is despite the fact that the decree exempts journalists from complying, given the nature of their work.
“Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” Human Rights Watch said. “Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health, noted above, may not put in jeopardy the right itself.”
The Index on Censorship campaign created an interactive map where violations of this right can be seen around the world. It is also possible to report cases.
In order to help ensure the work of journalists and other measures that the media must take to cover the pandemic, CPJ has a specific section on this topic.
Also, on April 1, CPJ announced an alliance with the Council of Europe to protect press freedom amid the COVID-19 pandemic.