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Organizations in Colombia and Mexico create initiatives to hold political candidates accountable for treatment of the press

As Latin American journalists prepare to cover the political campaigns and elections taking place across the region over the next few months, they are facing candidates and members of the public hostile to the profession, including some who will use verbal attacks to interfere with their work.

So as reporters, photographers and editors head to polling places and rallies to cover election season, freedom of expression organizations and journalism advocates are monitoring attacks on the press and creating initiatives to promote accountability from candidates.

Starting in early 2018 in Colombia, political candidates hardened their speech and political campaigns against the press in the lead up to presidential elections this May 27, according to the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) of Colombia.

The candidates "initiated a series of comments or launched statements that could easily go from being valid criticisms to violations of the duty of public officials to maintain speech favorable to freedom of expression," Sebastián Salamanca, lawyer and coordinator of the area of attention and defense for journalists at FLIP, told the Knight Center. "So we thought that we needed to respond to this at different levels," he explained.

Earlier this year, FLIP launched its campaign #VotoInformado (Informed Vote) on social networks –mainly Twitter– with the aim of promoting articulate and respectful discourse on the part of candidates, journalists and citizens in defense of freedom of expression in the context of elections.

"What we noticed above all in terms of elections to Congress, is that some candidates began to attack media that were critical of them as a campaign strategy. We took on the work of documenting each of these statements made by politicians or candidates for the presidency," Salamanca said.

As part of the #VotoInformado campaign, according to Salamanca, FLIP sent letters to candidates who made false statements or incited violence against any media outlet or journalist in particular, to explain why what they said was in violation of international standards on the subject of freedom of expression and how important it was to rectify or clarify publicly what was said.

"The hidden part of the campaign's work is to speak with the candidates directly, or send letters or exchange communications with their community managers," in order to get them to temper their discourse, Salamanca said. During the campaign for legislative elections, #VotoInformado managed to lower the tone of what was said by the candidates in social networks, which they highlight as a positive result of their campaign, Salamanca said.

From the beginning of February to the beginning of May, FLIP has documented 18 attacks by presidential candidates against the press. They measured it with a censorship index called "censurómetro" that is part of their campaign for informed voting.

The majority of these attacks against the press have been carried out by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Likewise, through its campaign, FLIP requested a public rectification on Twitter from right-wing candidate Alejandro Ordóñez, who accused journalist Ramiro Bejarano of being a member of the FARC after he published a critical opinion column about the candidate.

The intention of the campaign is to raise the political cost of comments from politicians and candidates who seek to attack the press by resorting to misinformation. "In the most serious cases, we have filed formal complaints with the Attorney General requesting public rectifications of their false claims. It is a democratic mechanism, it is about clarifying the accusations when they are false," Salamanca said.

In the case of Mexico, whose presidential elections will take place on July 1 of this year, electoral campaigns are well underway.

Freedom of expression organization Article 19 of Mexico is currently participating in two projects that seek to foster greater transparency between candidates and the public during election campaign months,

One is #MéxicoSinMiedo2018 (Mexico without fear), which is done in conjunction with Amnesty International. It is a monitoring platform for messages posted on Twitter by the candidates regarding four human rights issues: violence against the press, gender violence, forced disappearance and arbitrary arrests.

This platform also aims to encourage candidates and Twitter users to engage in a dialogue that publicly commits them to present concrete proposals that help solve the country's problems, Juan Vázquez of Article 19 of Mexico told the Knight Center via email.

As Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists in the western hemisphere, the campaign calls for proposals from candidates so journalists can “work without fear.”

In this sense, the second project in which Article 19 participates is Red Rompe el Miedo, which is carried out in coordination with the organizations R3D and Data Civica. The network is already active and its coverage will be nationwide, Vázquez said.

What this network seeks is to monitor the electoral process to prevent aggressions and violations of the human rights of journalists, activists and citizens. Its objective is specifically to document, monitor and follow up on the cases of attacks or threats registered during the presidential elections and to report them to the authorities, as explained by the participating organizations in a press conference given in April of this year.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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