Discourse - Rafael Molina

Presentation of Rafael Molina Morillo Chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information of the Inter American Press Association Sunday, October 27, 2002 58th General Assembly, Lima, Peru That well-worn phrase “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” takes on a new significance in looking at what has occurred during the months since our Midyear Meeting in Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic, a period peppered with disturbing developments that have required us to carry out many a special mission throughout the region and to maintain a state of alert in defense of the right to freedom of expression and information in the Americas. Terrorist actions, a lack independence in the judiciary in a number of countries, impunity, the existence of laws restricting the free practice of journalism, murders and physical assaults, censorship and self-censorship, a lack of mechanisms to guarantee unfettered access to public records, the imposition of burdensome taxes on the print media, and official discrimination against media that do not hew the government line are merely some of the adversities that we have had to face during this period. We are in a state of declared war against each of these forms of attack upon freedom of the press – a war that will not cease until the full enjoyment of the rights of all the people of the Americas to unconditionally express themselves and be informed has been achieved. In every case where it has been necessary we have continued to demanding of the authorities that they comply with their duty to investigate and mete out punishment for crimes against journalists and provide compensation for the consequences. Colombia is perhaps the country with most instances of impunity due to the government’s inability to deal effectively with drug trafficking and guerrilla activity, an essential prerequisite for the free and fearless practice of journalism. The cases of Carlos Pulgarín and Carlos Lajud, well-known journalists who had to flee their homeland for their own safety, are recent indications of the risks that journalists run in Colombia. Brazil is no exception. While the authorities have made considerable effort in the case of Tim Lopes of TV Globo, murdered in July, remaining completely unsolved are the murder in this period of Sávio Brandão of the Folha do Estado newspaper in Matto Grosso state, and a dozen other cases occurring over the past two decades that the IAPA has investigated and in which it has called for the guilty to be brought to justice. One exception to this growing trend of impunity was provided by a court in Mexico, which after three years of monitoring by the IAPA finally convicted the perpetrators of the 1998 murder of American reporter Philip True and sentenced them to 13 years’ imprisonment. Also noteworthy is the fact that we have launched a campaign for legislatures throughout the hemisphere ensure that there be no statute of limitations for crimes against journalists and regard the fact that an offense is committed against anyone working as a journalist as aggravating circumstances. Similarly, we are fighting for the murder of journalists, being a crime aimed at curtailing the basic rights and freedoms of society, to be considered an offense punishable under federal jurisdiction or dealt with in special jurisdictions in those countries in which states or provinces have judicial autonomy. We are also making every effort for international financial aid agencies to limit the economic or technical cooperation they give to governments that do not respect press freedom. But while the ability of some governments to contain and penalize attacks on the press is harmful, much worse is the situation where abuse of and outrages against journalists and news media come directly from governments, as has occurred in Chiapas, Mexico, with the attacks by the governor on the newspaper Cuarto Poder, and as now systematically occurs in Cuba with Castro, in Venezuela with Chávez or in Haiti with Aristide and the Lavalás Family Movement. Cuba continues to be the country with the least freedom of expression in the Western Hemisphere, as demonstrated by events over the past 40 years, in which there has been unceasing harassment and constant attacks on independent journalists. Such is the case, as an example, of Angel Pablo Polanco Torrejón, editor of the independent news agency Noticuba, who was arrested in August and subjected to mental torture during five days in custody, even though he is handicapped and suffering from glaucoma. In Haiti, there is an absence of safeguards and an impunity that exists nationwide, with no signs of improvement, while the government is sponsoring passage by Congress of a code of ethics that would undoubtedly serve as a platform to clamp new limitations and restrictions on the press. Venezuela, too, presents a panorama – well known by all – of news media and individual journalists under attack in action instigated by the government, putting at serious risk the people’s right to be freely informed. In those countries where laws already exist or are under discussion that could imply a danger for press freedom, such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Panama, Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information is keeping a close eye on the situation, as well as in the United States, where it is clear there are measures being taken aimed at providing disinformation and subordinating the press in order to promote government initiatives. In Argentina, a legislative bill, if passed, would cap foreign ownership of news media at 30%, which is certainly an unacceptable limitation of the free flow of information. We are also concerned that there are still many countries in the region that have insult laws. These include Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. It is only fair to point out that insult laws have been repealed in Argentina, Costa Rica and Paraguay. Other means of curtailing freedom of the press that we have confronted in these past six months have been actual imposition of excessive taxes, as occurred in Argentina, or plans to do so, as in Colombia, and self-censorship, admitted by journalists themselves who feel they or their family members are under threat, particularly in Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela, as well as in some Central American countries. Also conspiring against press freedom have been certain legal actions that violate the fundamental rights of the individual, such as the order by an Argentine judge to a British newspaper correspondent to reveal his news sources in his coverage of allegations of corruption or hand over a list of telephone calls he had made. As for unfettered access to public records, only three Latin American countries have legislation providing for this – Mexico, Panama and Peru. There are some auspicious bills on the subject, including one passed in part in Uruguay and others being debated in Brazil, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Sadly, the progress that this meant for Panama has been overshadowed by the fact that in practice the mechanisms established under the law have not been put into effect. A major objective that has been pursued by our Association and on which the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information is working is the decriminalization of libel. In this regard, an editor in Kansas, David Carson, was found guilty of criminal libel in July and the IAPA has sought to have the United States Supreme Court rule on the unconstitutionality of the conviction. The Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma was the target, for the second time, of a libel suit for alleged defamation of a congressman mentioned in a report on illicit payments to legislators. Unfortunately, being debated in Colombia is a bill that would increase sanctions for journalists found guilty of libel. A key issue that we should make every effort to prevent it gaining ground again is the trend observed in a number of countries to return to the requirement of membership in a colegio or be a university graduate in order to be able to work as a journalist. In that regard we should keep an eye on Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Panama, where a new bill on the requirement has been introduced in Congress, although such a law was repealed some years ago. To conclude his report on the past six months, we would like to record that in June we took part in the Hemisphere Conference on Justice and Press Freedom in the Americas, held in Washington, D.C., together with other IAPA committees and with the participation of Supreme Court justices from 23 countries of the Western Hemisphere, as well as newspaper editors and publishers, reporters, academics and other experts. We also participated in UNESCO seminars and conferences on freedom of information in the Dominican Republic and Panama, in panel discussions on the same issue in Ponce and San Juan, Puerto Rico, organized by the island’s Center for Press Freedom. We also attended, in late August, the “Drug Trafficking: Journalists At Risk” conference sponsored by our Mexican colleagues and with the presence of the United States drug czar in Tijuana, Baja California state. Finally, just a month ago we traveled with the president and other IAPA officers to Caracas, Venezuela, with the aim of interceding to obtain guarantees from the government for the practice of journalism there, to which end we held useful meetings with representatives of the government and opposition, professional associations, local businesses and the press. Unfortunately, we did not find a climate propitious for a mellowing of relations between the government and the independent media. In fact, a new government-sponsored bill on Public Participation, which – continuing the legacy of the Sentence 1013 – would empower government agencies and citizen groups to “oversee” privately-owned news media, censor news and opinion and even order suspension of activities in cases where a medium fails to change its editorial policies. These bills and the serious developments that are occurring in many of the countries of the region are a clear sign to us as to how alert and ready we must remain. We must not let our guard down for a moment. Upholding and strengthening freedom of the press is a commitment of all of us, wherever we may be – a commitment that we make every single day without a moment’s hesitation, with decisiveness and with responsibility. Thank you very much.