Violence against journalists increased in the Americas during 2015: report by the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR

At least 27 journalists and other media workers were murdered in the Americas for reasons that could be tied to their work during 2015. This was documented by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in their 2015 Annual Report released on March 23.

In addition to these cases, the office documented the assassination of 12 other journalists “in which it was not possible to determine a link to their labor without a thorough investigation.”

One of the greatest concerns for the Special Rapporteur is precisely the increase in violence against media workers, which occurred for the third year in a row, according to the report. For example, in 2014, the organization documented 25 assassinations, while in 2013 it recorded 18.

According to the Office of the Special Rapporteur, the continent has become one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a journalist. In the hemisphere, murders and kidnappings have become one of the “worse forms of censorship” taking into consideration the effects that they have not only on the victim, but also on society in general.

Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, the United States and Paraguay were the countries where murders of journalists were documented. The majority of these reporters covered issues related to organized crime, political corruption or represented their communities, the report highlighted.

In Brazil, 11 murders were documented, among which are the cases of Evany José Metzker, Djalma Santos da Conceição, Gleydson CarvalhoIsrael Gonçalves Silva and Ítalo Eduardo Diniz Barros. The case of Gerardo Servián, a Paraguayan journalist who was murdered in a Brazilian border town, was also included. The Office recommended that Paraguay collaborate with the investigations in this case.

The high levels of violence affecting Honduras have resulted in the targeting of journalists. By the end of the first six months of 2015, the Special Rapporteur had already documented the murder of eight journalists, cases in which it has not been possible to determine the motive of the crime. Among them are the cases of Erick Arriaga, Artemio Deras Orellana, Juan Carlos Cruz Andara, Deibi Adali Rodríguez and Joel Aquiles Torres.

In fact, in a report about Honduras published before the annual report, in addition to showing this increase in violence against journalists, the IACHR asserted that about 96 percent of crimes against media workers remain in impunity.

Over the last decade, Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places in which to practice journalism, according to the Special Rapporteur. The office documented the murder of six journalists for reasons possibly connected to their work and another four cases in which it had not been possible to determine the motive of the crime.

Their records include the crimes against José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo and the photojournalist Rubén Espinosa.

In a previous report about Mexico, the IACHR emphasized the high rates of impunity as well as the flaws in the protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders.

In Colombia, murders of four media workers were documented: Luis Peralta, Édgar QuinteroFlor Alba Núñez and Dorancé Herrera. Whereas in Guatemala, three murders took place: Danilo López, Federico Salazar and Guido Villatoro. The Rapporteur also reminded Guatemala of the need to implement a special protection mechanism for journalists, which has been in the works since 2012.

In the United States, two murders were recorded, while one was documented in the Dominican Republic.

In its report, the Special Rapporteur recommended that the States adopt preventative measures, as well as protections for those journalists who are especially at risk. It also stressed the importance of carrying out “serious, impartial and effective investigations” of crimes against journalists, judging and sentencing those responsible, and providing reparations to the victims and their families.

This type of violence, however, is not the only thing that affects freedom of expression and journalists in the continent. According to the Special Rapporteur there was also an increase in the number of threats, instances of intimidation and physical violence.

The report also asserted that in 2015 there was a “disproportionate use of force” by authorities in some of the States when responding to the large number of protests and demonstrations. This response not only affected protesters, but also members of the press who were attacked, detained and/or had their work equipment destroyed, stolen or confiscated.

According to the Special Rapporteur, these situations took place in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, United States, Mexico and Venezuela. The report also documented repression during protests in Nicaragua and Paraguay.

One of the restrictions to freedom of speech that the Special Rapporteur has highlighted in the last few years is the use of the legal system. According to the most recent report, several of the criminal complaints, presented for the most part by state officials or candidates to elected office, ended in “prison sentences for journalists and political or social activists under legal concepts for the protection of honor such as defamation, slander or libel.”

The report mentioned, for example, the sentence against two directors of the newspaper El Ciudadano in Chile who were accused of slandering a former congressman; the detention and sentence to community service of a teenager in Ecuador for having made “an obscene and insulting gesture several times” at President Rafael Correa; as well as the criminal complaint filed by the then-president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, against the media outlets El Nacional, La Patila, and Tal Cual, and their leaders.

On this issue, the report followed up on Ecuador’s Organic Law on Communications (LOC by its initials in Spanish), approved in 2013, and pointed out that during 2015 under this new law “numerous penalties against private media outlets were imposed in a manner incompatible with the international standards on the right to freedom of expression.”

The Special Rapporteur is concerned with the “disproportionate sanctions” enforced by the organism created by the LOC—the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom by its initials in Spanish)—as well as “the use of the right of correction and reply as a mechanism to limit the dissemination of content considered unfavorable to the government, to protect the image of pro-government public servants, and to impose pro-government views and speech on media outlets, journalists, and cartoonists in Ecuador.”

Last June, on the second anniversary of the Supercom, it was established that the entity had executed more than 500 cases against media outlets, had sanctioned 313 media companies, and had imposed fines for almost $274,000 US dollars. Some of their most controversial sanctions have been imposed against the cartoonist for newspaper El UniversoXavier Bonilla “Bonil,” who was even forced to publish a correction of one of his cartoons.

The report also singled out Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela as the main countries where high-level officials attack journalists and media outlets that “publish information that the authorities do not like” through stigmatizing declarations.

On this issue, the Special Rapporteur reminded state authorities of the duty they have to ensure that their statements are not “forms of direct or indirect interference or harmful pressure on the rights of those who seek to contribute with public deliberations,” according to what has been established by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The report also establishes freedom of expression improvements for each country. One of them was the sentencing of former Colombian congressman Ferney Tapasco to 36 years in prison for being the intellectual author in the murder of journalist Orlando Sierra in 2002.

Similarly, it highlighted the approval of the General Transparency and Public Information Access Law in Mexico, which, according to the Rapporteur, guarantees the “full and effective exercise of the right of access to information.”

In addition to an analysis of each country, the Special Rapporteur’s annual report has two thematic reports: “Access to information, violence against women, and the administration of justice in the Americas” and “Hate speech and incitement to violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex persons in the Amercas.”

The Rapporteur’s report is part of the 2015 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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.