Ecuadoran government's offensive threatens the OAS's Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression

The series of recommendations to change the inter-American system of human rights, presented by the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States on Jan. 25, would limit the authority of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), especially the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

Described as a "slug," "swipe," and "stab" against free expression, the package of recommendations is a victory for Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, the main advocate for these reforms, who has repeatedly criticized the efforts of the IACHR as interfering in internal affairs.

"The recommendations claim to 'fortify' the inter-American system when in reality they fight against the protection of a fundamental right. It could severely limit the ability [of the rapporteur] to investigate and criticize," Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Project Journalists told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

For the moment, the recommendations are non-binding. Final approval depends on the votes of the 34 member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) at the next General Assembly meeting, which will be held in Bolivia in June 2012.

While the proposed reforms, in theory, will improve transparency and judicial rigor in the inter-American human rights system, more than 60 NGOs and representatives from civil society groups allege that the changes will damage the rapporteur's effectiveness and autonomy. The reforms, proposed by a working group from Venezuela and Ecuador, essentially deal with the budget and jurisdiction of the OAS's rapporteurs.

One of the reforms recommends equalizing the budgets of all IACHR rapporteurs; the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression receives three-times as much financial support as the other rapporteurs. Along with another provision that would prohibit rapporteurs from seeking outside funding, the freedom of expression group would take a big hit to its budget. The reforms would also create a code of conduct that would keep the rapporteur from publishing its traditional reports, many of which criticize Ecuador and Venezuela's actions against freedom of expression, and suggest that the group's annual report be very brief and speak about the region generally, not separated by country as it is today.

This kind of attack on the freedom of expression rapporteur, Colombian lawyer Catalina Botero, is nothing new for the Ecuadoran government, which considers the rapporteur's recent criticisms and recommendations on freedom of expression unfair. (The government echos the same response for the numerous letters and reports from international organizations concerned about the state of press freedom in the Andean country.) President Correa has also tried to discredit Botero.

The International Federation of Human Rights, along with other press freedom groups, like Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters Without Borders, have spoken out in support of Botero and the special rapporteur office she leads. So far, neither Botero nor OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza have commented on the possible reforms.

Created in 1997, the rapporteur has played an important role in the defense of freedom of expression and access to information in the region; the protection of journalists; fighting for the decriminalization of libel; fighting impunity; and the promotion of a pluralism of information. "This as been a project for over 10 years, but they're trying to neutralize its gains and limit its influence," said Carlos Lauría of CPJ.

The concern is no small thing, considering the growing obstacles to free expression in the region, and by extension, democracy. "The OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is needed more than ever," Reporters Without Borders and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters said in a joint statement.

"This is a reflection of the deterioration of institutions like democracy on the regional level," said Carlos Lauría of CPJ. "Ecuador, with the support of its partners in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA in Spanish), seeks to subjugate institutions that report things that make them uncomfortable," like those Ecuador received in response to the government's attacks on freedom of the press. This is precisely why it is "important to reinforce mechanisms like the rapporteur," Lauría said.

While there is still concern, Lauría noted that there was not unanimous support for the Ecuador's recommendations for the special rapporteur on the OAS Permanent Council. Countries like Uruguay, Costa Rica and Panama strongly supported the existing role of the IACHR and its agencies.

Other regional leaders like Mexico and Colombia, however, had ambiguous responses. The Foundation for Freedom of the Press in Colombia, for example, criticized the Colombian representative for characterizing the reforms as "positive" and for not defending the role played by the special rapporteur in guaranteeing freedom of expression on the continent.

The Ecuadoran government has long been accused of attacking freedom of expression and has a hostile relationship with the press, calling it "mediocre, "lying," "corrupt," and a "de facto power."

Organizations like the Inter American Press Association, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and Reporters Without Borders have asked President Correa to stop his assault on journalists and the media, like that facing the newspaper El Universo, which could set a dangerous precedent. Publications like The New York TimesWashington Post, Spain's El PaísEl Espectador in Colombia, and La Nación in Argentina have also questioned Correa's actions. Even Ecuador's previous presidents have asked that Correa respect freedom of expression.

The Ecuadoran president insists that there is "total freedom of expression" in his country, and that his only goal is ensuring the responsible practice of journalism. He denies that the media are persecuted despite the government campaign accusing the press, radio and television broadcasters of "distorting the truth." During his time in office, Correa has consolidated an important and growing network of public media in response to the "ink assassins" that dominate private media.

"It would seem that for President Correa the only acceptable practice of freedom of expression is that which praises and applauds the current administration," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Program.