UNESCO report highlights Knight Center online courses among its initiatives to train judges in Latin America

By Silvia Higuera y César López Linares


Five years after its implementation, UNESCO's project to train judges, prosecutors and other judicial operators in Latin America on freedom of expression and access to information has become the most ambitious judicial training program in the region and has led to concrete results in the courts. This is the conclusion of a special report for UNESCO produced by American journalist Bill Orme.

UNESCO Report, “Schools for Judges: Lessons in Freedom of Information and Expression from (and for) Latin America’s courtrooms"

In the report, “Schools for Judges: Lessons in Freedom of Information and Expression from (and for) Latin America’s courtrooms,” published by UNESCO in English and Spanish, Orme highlights that more than 600 judicial operators have participated in the program’s in-person seminars, and about 8,000 have taken the massive online open course (MOOC) that is offered together with the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter American COmmission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.

The scope of these online courses, which allow for the "democratization of judicial training" as cited by Orme in his report, have become an element of great support for this UNESCO training program. For example, the online course, which is called “International Legal Framework of Freedom of Expression, Access to Public Information and Protection of Journalists,” has the backing of the highest judicial authorities in Latin America, which Orme highlights as being among the most important results of the training initiative.

These online courses, pioneers in the world in terms of freedom of expression, began in 2014 with the pilot program for judges and other judicial operators in Mexico. On that occasion nearly 900 people participated, which, for Rosental Alves, director and founder of the Knight Center, was an "almost overwhelming" and unexpected response, according to the Orme report.

This was followed by a special version of the course for judges of the Mexican state of Coahuila in 2015. That same year, the course was offered for the first time for Latin America and Spain. This edition of the course has been offered annually with updates to both video classes as well as judicial decisions, with an increasing number of judicial operators in the region participating.

In all, the Knight Center, UNESCO and the Office of the Special Rapporteur have offered the international version of the course five times. The most recent edition ended in May 2018, which reached a record number of 2,418 accepted participants.

"For the Office of the Special Rapporteur, it is very important to participate in this process together with the judicial operators of the region. A job that is part of the tireless task of promotion that this office has been carrying out over the last 20 years in its relationship with high courts, national courts and prosecutors of the various countries of the region; and ranging from multiple face-to-face visits to prosecutor's offices in several countries, to judicial schools and spaces for reflection with judges, through the thematic reports and the systematization of standards; to the cases promoted through the Commission and before the Inter-American Court that generate emblematic decisions," Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR and one of the instructors of these online courses, told the Knight Center.

"The implementation of this MOOC together with UNESCO and the Knight Center is a successful practice that we have sustained over time and that allows greater dissemination through new technologies. We highlight the figure of 8,000 judicial operators as a great joint achievement with our partners. This could not be understood without the expert knowledge, doctrine and jurisprudence that the Office of the Rapporteurship has promoted at the Inter-American level in its 20 years and in individual justice in specific cases processed before the inter-American system,” Lanza added.

Banner Spanish online course 2018 “International Legal Framework of Freedom of Expression, Access to Public Information and Protection of Journalists”

The support of the Organization of American States (OAS) through the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression to UNESCO's training program as well as the decision of the Ibero-American Judicial Summit to align its activities with the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations is another outstanding achievement of this initiative, according to the report.

A project that seeks to inspire other regions

UNESCO invited Orme, former New York Times correspondent in Middle East and international media and strategic communication specialist, to write the report in order to have someone analyze the program’s outcomes from an objective point of view, and in a journalistic format that could be understood by a general audience. The result, according to UNESCO, was a less bureaucratic and more humanized piece.

“This report tells the story from the perspective of the judges involved, from their viewpoint,” Guilherme Canela, UNESCO’s regional advisor on communication and information, told the Knight Center. “To have somebody who is a complete outsider telling this story is in my opinion very useful so we have a new perspective, new oxygen, about how to read this story, that many people consider a story of success.”

In order to write his report, Orme traveled to Paraguay in November 2017 for the most recent in-person training program. There, the journalist interviewed several of the participating judges, as well as former court presidents involved in the creation of the program.

After his interviews in Paraguay, Orme was able to corroborate the long-term impact that the program has had in the country’s criminal justice system and in the defense of press freedom and access to information.

As an example, he looked at the case of the murder of Paraguayan journalist Pablo Medina in 2014, who was investigating reports of a mayor’s alleged links with drug trafficking. Later it was revealed that the mayor had ordered the homicide. He was sentenced to 39 years in prison for the murder.

“One of the judges at the ex-mayor’s murder trial was a graduate of that 2015 UNESCO seminar,” Orme wrote in his report. “The judge told colleagues later that the course had given her valuable guidance in the case, by highlighting precedents for prosecuting the premeditated killing of a journalist not as a common homicide, but rather as an attack on press freedom and the rights of all Paraguayans to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas,’ in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

UNESCO hopes that Orme's report will inspire other regions to carry out training programs similar to those in Latin America to support the strengthening of judicial powers in cases of freedom of expression and other rights.

“Parts of this initiative are already being applied in Africa in the interest of African judicial operators,” Canela said. “An initial training of African judges took place last year, totally inspired -of course with the corresponding adaptations- by this initiative that started in Latin America.”

Round of regional training operators judicial systems in Latin America in Paraguay.

From 28 to 30 November 2017, in Asuncion, Paraguay, took place an edition of the round of regional training operators judicial systems in Latin America. The theme was: “Freedom of expression, access to information public and new digital challenges.” (Photo: UNESCO)

Orme highlighted in his report that most of the current laws on access to public information in the world date from the year 2000 to the present, and that Latin America is at the forefront both in terms of the rigor of its legislation and in the success of its implementation. However, most law schools in the region do not yet address these legal frameworks. That is the challenge that led UNESCO to create the training program.

"Judges and other judicial operators were trained at a time when these legal frameworks did not even exist in their own countries," Canela said. "We believe that one challenge is that they know and are trained in this new logic of governance after this wave of approval of laws on access to public information."

Canela said that the topics that most interest Latin American judges and magistrates in courses and seminars are those that have to do with legislation on the Internet and freedom of expression.

"These difficulties are even more graphic because of all the novelty and acceleration that technology brings in terms of rights such as freedom of expression or privacy," the UNESCO adviser said.

Canela hopes that Orme's report stimulates the interest of Latin American journalists on the importance of the judiciary in protecting freedom of expression, access to public information and the protection of journalists themselves.

"If this can stimulate other Latin American journalists, regardless of whether they talk about the UNESCO initiative, to talk about the issue, about the importance of the judiciary to promote and protect freedom of expression, I think we will have achieved the goal with this report," Canela said.