San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Press freedom, human rights face setbacks

From the print edition

Two U.S. ambassadors gathered Tuesday at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIHR) in the eastern San José neighborhood of Los Yoses for a round table discussion with journalists and human rights advocates on the state of freedom of expression in the Americas.

U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, Anne S. Andrew, and Carmen Lomellin, the U.S. permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), sat with IIHR President Sonia Picado to talk about growing threats to freedom of expression throughout the region.

“In the United States, and in many other places around the world, like Costa Rica, a free and vibrant press supports active debate and offers a platform for investigative journalism and a forum for the expression of different points of view, in particular, in the name of those who are marginalized in society,” Andrew said. “Journalists play an important roll in this free exchange of ideas that is at the heart of freedom of expression and of the press.”

Andrew said the U.S. Embassy in San José has demonstrated a commitment to supporting a free press in Costa Rica.

“An example is the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists that in recent years has given five Costa Rican journalists the opportunity to expand their professional contacts in the region and the U.S., and to be exposed to new ideas and innovations in journalism,” the ambassador said.

Lomellin, who has served as OAS representative since 2009, said threats to freedom of expression are growing in the Americas.

“It’s no secret that in our region, today, freedom of expression is facing serious threats,” Lomellin said. “The primary threats are governments that use the powers of the state to curtail the press and use threats and prosecutions against opposition [who have] different opinions than them.”

Lomellin cited Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua in this category.

“The government of Venezuela has closed 27 radio stations and has not wanted to renew the license of Radio Caracas,” she said. “On the 6th of March, the Supreme Court insisted on a fine of more than $2 million against [Venezuelan TV station] Globovisión, just because they showed images of riots. This is an example what’s happening.”

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government has created a near-monopoly on media outlets by buying up television stations and independent newspapers, Lomellin said.

In the second category of problematic countries, Lomellin mentioned Mexico and Honduras, two of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

“The second threat,” Lomellin said, “is  created by governments that have very weak institutions and don’t have the ability to protect the media and civil society from attacks.”

Lomellin said approximately 23 journalists have been killed in Honduras since last year, and reasons for many of the slayings remain unclear. 

“In the U.S., we’re really worried about the increase in these cases where journalists are attacked or killed,” Lomellin said. “Every day you’re hearing about more and more cases. It’s worrying for us, because if you remove this ability, this right from society, what follows is going to get worse.”

She added: “Putting limitations on these types of liberties are attacks on democracy itself.”

Lomellin recently attended a meeting of the Regional Alliance for the Freedom of Expression and Information in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The alliance, made up of 23 human rights and transparency organizations from 19 countries in the Americas, issued a statement signaling its support for the autonomy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and calling for a “wide and inclusive” debate about the future of the commission, which Lomellin said is under increasing pressure from some OAS member states.

“They want to weaken the international human rights system,” Lomellin said. “They want to cut funding, they don’t want independent observers and they want to have more control over what the commission can and can’t do.”

Lomellin indicated that that pressure to reduce the autonomy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is coming from various countries, including Venezuela and Ecuador.

Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru, the U.S., Canada and Costa Rica all expressed support in the Cochabamba meeting for maintaining the commission’s autonomy. Lomellin said Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo has shown substantial support for the commission.

“The U.S. will continue trying to support and defend the system as much as possible,” Lomellin said, adding, “especially in terms of freedom of expression and information, because they are so important.”

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