Latin American governments use hostile speech, judicial harassment and spying to censor journalists

With strategies that range from the use of openly hostile speeches that describe it as an “enemy” or “opposition,” to the abusive use of criminal law to censor, through the use of technological developments to monitor and control, some governments in Latin America seek to dismantle the rule of law to persecute criticism and public denunciation.

This is according to representatives of 25 civil society organizations working in the region which spoke before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during the public hearing “Effects on the right to freedom of expression due to state censorship measures” that took place on July 8.

According to Emmanuel Vargas Penagos, director of the Colombian freedom of expression organization El Veinte, this is a common problem in the region and is related to “government strategies to undermine citizen participation and the dissemination of relevant information about public powers.” It’s not just journalists, but also human rights defenders who are the targets of these strategies.

“We see that these are not issues limited to governments located within one end or another of the political spectrum, and that they are part of a broad strategy to dismantle the rule of law,” Vargas said. “The above implies that the response by the States and the Inter-American System must be comprehensive and based on the safeguarding of freedom of expression and public participation as fundamental elements of democracy.”

Implanting official narratives is one of those strategies. According to Raissa Carrillo, from international organization Media Defence, this creates a hostile environment for oversight and facilitates propaganda and self-censorship. These narratives, Carrillo continued, manage to be implemented through four measures such as stigmatization, the diversion of audiences from the press, the weakening of opponents and the amplification of the message using the public media system.

As has been documented, the stigmatization of the press and human rights defenders through public statements by high-ranking authorities “undoubtedly generates an inhibiting effect on any control of power,” Carrillo added. The cases of presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, Gustavo Petro of Colombia and Javier Milei in Argentina, as well as former presidents Donald Trump of the United States, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, are perhaps some of the most emblematic, she said.

Screenshot of a Zoom call

Audiencia pública ante la CIDH “Afectaciones al derecho a la libertad de expresión por medidas estatales de censura” durante el 190 Periodo de Sesiones.

According to the organizations, they have seen a parallel between the increase in physical violence against journalists and the hostile environment promoted by these statements. “This is very burdensome in the context of deadly violence against the press in the region in the last five years,” Carrillo said.

She added that it is worrying that organizations that work to defend the press now also receive these stigmatizations. This has happened to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP, for its acronym in Spanish) in Colombia, the Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA), the Association of Journalists of El Salvador and Article 19 and Centro Prodh in Mexico.

The organizations have also documented the use of the public media system to promote smear campaigns and, in more serious cases, to put it at the “service of a political mission.” If the measure of diverting and co-opting press audiences is added to this, the government becomes the filter of what should be delivered to audiences, what is considered relevant and what is not.

“One-way communication, through social networks and platforms, makes it easier to do without the press,” said Ángela Caro, from FLIP.

The strengthening of surveillance mechanisms in both the analog and digital worlds has been identified by organizations as another strategy for silencing critical voices. Of particular concern is the “opacity” in the acquisition and use of spyware, illegal geolocation and cyber patrolling.

The use of Pegasus spyware has been identified, for example, in Colombia, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. In the latter, Pegasus has been used on at least 25 journalists, including journalist Cecilio Pineda Brito, murdered two weeks after the spyware was used, according to Luis Fernando García of the organization R3D.

He added that in El Salvador, between July 2020 and November 2021, 35 devices belonging to journalists and members of civil society were attacked with Pegasus while they reported on matters of Bukele's administration.

Cyber ​​patrolling or the use of open source software and intelligence tools is a latent threat against media and journalists which is aggravated by the lack of investigation, prosecution and legal reforms that control this, said Priscilla Ruiz from Article 19.

“The judicialization of freedom of expression on matters of public interest by abusing legal tools” is another of the strategies identified by the organizations. As was identified years ago, this trend of criminally or civilly suing journalists and activists seeks to undermine scrutiny and public debate, Alicia Miller of FOPEA said.

These complaints usually affect journalists psychologically and financially and sometimes bring threats and intimidation not only against the journalist who is the target of these complaints, but also against their colleagues and family members.

“Judicial harassment has a negative effect by inhibiting criticism, discouraging journalistic investigations and generating a culture of self-censorship that, in addition to affecting journalistic work, harms the public's right to information and the role of citizens in democracy,” Miller said.

In addition to the abuse of the justice system, the organizations found that in some countries there have even been legal reforms to increase penalties for crimes to prosecute journalists such as defamation, terrorist activity, collaboration with foreign entities, publication of false news or public disorder. Accusations of financial crimes such as fraud or money laundering are also used, but motivated by political reasons, Miller explained.

Cases such as that of Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, Daniel Enz from Argentina, Luis Ángel Cuza and Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca from Cuba and Gustavo Gorriti from Peru were among those mentioned. Also notable were cases in Nicaragua with journalists accused and even expelled from their country after being accused of different crimes. It also happens in El Salvador. FLIP has documented at least 14 cases in Colombia until June 2024, while the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI) has documented 654 lawsuits classified as judicial harassment from 2009 to 2024.

One of the requests made to the IACHR is the development of a model protocol that delves into the standards established by the Inter-American System on the freedom of expression of public officials, the rights and obligations that this implies, as well as its impact on communications of the State and in the digital world.

The protocol, according to the organizations, could give tools to States to prevent violence caused by stigmatizing speeches.

“This initiative can have a preventive effect in a context in which a parallel is already evident between the increase in physical violence against journalists and the hostile environment promoted by official stigmatization,” said Sofía Jaramillo of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

They also requested that analysis of cases related to the different problems presented at the hearing be prioritized and thus to extend the inter-American standards, as well as the preparation of reports on the effects of surveillance tools on freedom of expression and another on “strategic lawsuits against public participation as a threat to freedom of expression.”

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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