The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS has just appointed a new Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Over time, this position has come to be nearly as important as that of Secretary General. Are there changes in the politics or agenda? Is Ecuador calm? The candidate that was chosen was supported by the Uruguayan government…
Ricardo Uceda*/ Regional, August 2014
The way in which the OAS supervises the guarantees that allow the press to function freely produced an intense debate among the nations of the Americas. The ALBA governments, which were at that point grouped together by Hugo Chávez, rejected the notion that they were the aggressors through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The abuses were documented by the Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, which is part of the IACHR. Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as other countries, were exposed as nations in which social control begins with the weakening of the independent press. Both countries protested this. But the political reality is that the IACHR and Rapporteurship acquired greater moral authority than the OAS itself.
It is a paradoxical situation, and it is due to the fact that the justification of the IACHR is impeccable, while the OAS is incapable of enforcing democratic standards in nations with authoritarian governments. It is not an exaggeration to say that the appointment of the official who oversees freedom of expression at IACHR is more delicate than that of the OAS Secretary General. Who was more important for regional democracy, for example: Chile’s José Miguel Insulza or Colombia’s Catalina Botero? This is an issue because Botero concluded her six-year term leading the Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression and the appointment of her replacement had a complex, tense context.
Action and Reaction
One of the ways of appreciating the importance of the Rapporteurship is the number of sentences issued by Latin American judges that cite its annual or topic-specific reports. There are sentences from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and other countries that are based on the IACHR documents in order to support the rights of journalists. Another indicator is the large amount of correspondence between the Rapporteurship and the various governments. In some cases, the governments have requested consultative opinions, as was the case in Brazil prior to the modification of its Criminal Code. In others, the Rapporteurship makes observations based on supervision for nearly all countries. For example, the annual report includes objections to the restrictive measures imposed by the U.S.’s anti-terrorist surveillance, which limits freedom of expression. The body also provides summaries of the responses that have come from the U.S. Ecuador does not accept the supervision.
Ecuador led a process to take away two pillars of the Rapporteurship –its own funding (one million dollars from its budget comes from international cooperation) and independence for its reports-, initially with the help of Argentina and Brazil. The euphemistic framework was the strengthening of the IACHR. The discussion in the OAS lasted for three years, and in the end some parameters were changed, but not what Ecuador was looking for while it was bullying the Rapporteurship. Catalina Botero spent a good deal of her time defending the agency, responding with irrefutable reports. In 2013, Ecuador filed an official protest with the OAS over the annual report, demanding public apologies from IACHR. That year, it tried to make the OAS change its composition so that it would include an ALBA nation. The IACHR is composed of seven individuals with moral authority and experience in human rights who are appointed personally by the General Assembly based on a list proposed by the member states. Once named, the commissioners self-govern. But Erick Roberts, the Ecuadorian candidate, did not earn enough votes. The most popular candidates in terms of votes were those of the Mexico and the U.S. This shows that a majority of the OAS wants IACHR to continue to be independent and composed of quality commissioners.
Botero defended her office’s reports like a lion. Another Rapporteur with less courage and legal solidity might have ceded more ground. “After Cuba, Ecuador is the country that has the most restrictive legislation on freedom of expression in the region,” she said last week in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País. Her successor will work in a different context, though it will likely not be one with less tension.
She is replaced by Uruguay’s Edison Lanza, who was visibly supported by his government. Though Uruguay, which is decidedly left-wing, is not part of ALBA, it gets along with the members of ALBA. A first question thus comes to mind: Will there be a shift?
The Rapporteur is not appointed by governments, but by IACHR members autonomously. Their election is a process in which anyone can present an opinion about the candidates: governments, civil society organizations, public figures. Uruguay showed preference for its compatriot as Ecuador did for Argentina’s Damián Loreti, one of the people who promoted his country’s Audiovisual Communication Services Law. The Uruguayan lobby was able to obtain results with a commissioner. A veteran journalist who spoke with José Mujica about Lanza’s candidacy heard him say that he would speak to Lula about it. Lula is close to Brazilian commissioner Paulo Vannuchi, who was an advisor to his government and directed his campaign. According to Inter-American system stakeholders consulted for this article, one factor that explains Lanza’s election is, precisely, his nationality. But that is not the only factor.
According to some sources, the IACHR may have preferred a candidate who was supported by the Uruguayan government because it is not aligned with the ALBA members or with the U.S. and Canada. “Mujica can sit down with Obama, but he is not perceived of as pro-imperialist, nor do they see him as a Chavista because he meets with Maduro,” one of them said. The situation would give him space in both sectors, which are divided on several issues, particularly in the area of human rights. It is the same potential that encouraged Uruguay to launch the candidacy of its Foreign Affairs Minister, Luis Almagro, for the post of Secretary General of the OAS, which Chile’s José Miguel Insulza will leave in February 2014.
The Most Supported
The other, more important factor is Lanza’s credentials and qualities. Lanza is a journalist who became an attorney while he was working as a reporter for the weekly newspaper Búsqueda de Montevideo. Once he earned his law degree, he defended the workers against the company, then the company against other parties, and finally the unions and freedom of expression associations. Over the past decade, he has founded the Center for Archives and Access to Public Information (CAINFO), one of the most important Latin American institutions of its kind. He was thus the person who gave the best personal interview before the commissioners and received the most support from Latin American civil society organizations. His biography, which is available on the IACHR Website, features his broad experience in nearly every aspect of the rights whose observance he will supervise. He has been recognized for his equanimity and broad willingness to engage in dialogue, a characteristic that he recently exhibited when he stated, following his appointment, that he does not want the governments to see IACHR as an enemy. He is describing the Rapporteurship as an element that can support governments in the process of developing the system for protecting human rights that they have all built.
Will this olive branch work? There are sceptics who believe that Lanza will have a short honeymoon with Ecuador, where there is legislation that punishes contents that are not in line with the censor’s approach. “They don’t tolerate fleas, and if they don’t obtain the silence from the Rapporteurship, they will hit hard,” said an OAS source. On the other hand, Lanza introduces new topics, some of which generate concern among conservatives. For example, the idea that freedom of expression is not consumed with the lack of repression but that it is necessary for the State to intervene so that there is more pluralism and diversity and less concentration of the media. How? For example, by improving digitalization standards of the media that use this technology, or providing greater access to new sectors to the radio spectrum, or by favoring an independent public media system. Part of this agenda was developed in Uruguay without society becoming polarized. It is under discussion in Peru. No one knows if it will open up.
Originally published in La República de Perú on July 30, 2014.
*Ricardo Uceda is the Director of the Press and Society Institute (Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, IPYS).