15 October 2007

October 2007, Miami


Report of the chairman of the Impunity Committee Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz Sunday, October 14, 2007 IAPA General Assembly Miami, Florida

Violence continues to be unleashed against journalists in the Americas and that is why we are unable to celebrate those achievements that we have obtained in our patient and persistent battle against impunity.

Sadly, in these last six months the violence cast a pall over news media and newsrooms in numerous countries. Nine journalists were murdered – Salvador Sánchez of El Salvador, Javier Darío Arroyave of Colombia, Alberto Palma of Paraguay, Chauncey Bailey of the United States, Alix Joseph of Haiti, Luiz Carlos Barbon of Brazil, Miguel Pérez Julia of Peru and Saúl Martínez Ortega and Amado Ramírez of Mexico – and the disappearance of two Mexican journalists, Gamaliel López and Gerardo Paredes, whose whereabouts have remained unknown since they disappeared in May this year. We have to report that in this period also Mateo Cortés Martínez, Agustín López, and Flor Vásquez López, vendors of the newspaper El Imparcial del Itsmo in Oaxaca, were murdered, apparently by members of organized crime in reprisal for reports in the newspaper they were distributing.

In memory of the victims, in sympathy with their family members and in a call to governments to solve these crimes, I would invite you to observe a minute of silence.

Despite this sense of frustration that we feel whenever a journalist is felled while doing his or her job and that violence leads to self-censorship, it is good to be able to point to some positive aspects.

The most important one is that Latin America is the region in the world that has reduced impunity the most, according to a report by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. It’s true! When we launched our project 12 years ago you could count the number of murderers sent to prison on the fingers of one hand. Today, however, 82 persons are serving or have served their prison sentences.

In this regard, among news that is most important and which the IAPA has highlighted are the following developments:

In Brazil a court in Mato Grosso do Sul state convicted the mastermind of the murder of Paraguayan journalist Samuel Román and he has begun serving a 17-year, nine-month sentence in prison. Brazil is the country with the largest number of convictions – 31 in a total of 15 cases.

Meanwhile in Argentina the Buenos Aires provincial Supreme Court overturned the release of the accused found guilty of the murder of news photographer José Luis Cabezas but who had benefited in 2003 from a law that reduced prison terms of those convicted. We hope that the new ruling will be upheld and the murderers be sent back to prison to serve out their full term.

Another positive development was in Peru, where in early October the National Criminal Court in Lima sentenced two members of the Peruvian military to 15 and 17 years’ imprisonment for having instigated and carried out the 1988 murder of journalist Hugo Bustíos Saavedra.

On the other hand, in Colombia we can only regret the release from prison of the man who in 2002 killed Orlando Sierra, which case we took up again last year in our documentary “The Battle of Silence.” The murderer served only five years of his 29-year sentence, taking advantage of a legal provision for early release, despite the fact that Peru’s Code of Criminal Procedure stiffens punishment in the case of the murder of journalists.

Meanwhile another major development was the presentation of a bill to federalize crimes against freedom of expression in my country, Mexico. Introduced by the executive branch this bill would amend Article 50 of the Organic Law of the Federal Judiciary, empowering the Mexican Attorney General’s Office to take up cases of journalists who are victims of violence for practicing their profession. This was a pledge that President Felipe Calderón made to us and we can say that if the Mexican Congress approves it a long-standing wish of the IAPA will be met – we have been requesting such a step since 1997, initially of President Ernesto Zedillo following our investigations into the still-unpunished murders in Baja California and Chihuahua of Héctor Félix Miranda and Víctor Manuel Oropeza, respectively.

As you will recall, we are continuing to hold talks on these two cases with the Mexican government through the inter-American human rights system and despite having had a dozen meetings we still do not have any concrete progress to report. We are at a dead-end and we hope that the new government administration will acknowledge its responsibility and comply with the recommendations made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on reopening the investigations, inquiry into possible negligence in the legal process, and redress in the two cases.

It is worth noting that we have initiated another solution process with Brazil in the case of journalist Manuel Leal de Oliveira, murdered in Itabuna in 1998. In that connection we met two days ago in Washington, DC, at the IACHR headquarters, with representatives of the Brazilian government and it was agreed to begin a series of meetings to produce compliance with the recommendations which that organization had presented to Brazil concerning the case in December last year, and they agreed to pursue proceedings against the masterminds of the murder.

In that same regard we are continuing with a process with the Colombian government in the case of Nelson Carvajal, murdered in Pitalito in 1998.

Concerning this, I would like to highlight the work of the journalists of the IAPA’s Rapid Response Unit, who even despite facing possible risks continue to do their work, as in the case of Diana Calderon, for whom we have called on the Colombian government to provide protection following indication of threats to her.

I cannot fail to mention that among the most prominent facets of our work this year has been the Hemisphere Conference on The Judiciary, The Press and Impunity, hosted by our President Rafael Molina in his hometown of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in July. The IAPA on that occasion demonstrated its ability to convene a major meeting. We had the presence of 24 jurists, 12 of them chief justices of Supreme Courts from around the Americas.

From that meeting, in which also taking part were judges, lawyers, politicians, journalists and news media executives, there emerged a Declaration of Principles that sets important precedents and which encourages us to continue calling for mechanisms and legal reforms as essential tools to combat impunity.

To battle against impunity positively mooted during the Conference were such issues as cases of crimes against freedom of expression and against individual journalists coming under special or federal jurisdiction in those countries where such action is merited; stiffening penalties; not allowing such offenses to be subject to a statute of limitations; ending early release from prison; promoting among the various branches of government the use of international and in-American treaties, and, when appropriate, recommending the implementation of a new criminal procedure model.

The Declaration, taking into account the violence unleashed against those who administer justice and journalists, was also rich in providing opportunities for getting together, mutual understanding, and dialogue on the culture of legality and the value of freedom of expression.

This experience of working with the jurists has encouraged us to take further strides in our own strategy for 2008-2011, for which we hope that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will continue its support, as it has been doing since 1992. I take this opportunity, on behalf of the IAPA and the committee that I chair, to express our gratitude to the Foundation’s president, our friend Alberto Ibargüen, for his confidence and support for our project.

For this new period that will begin in 2008 I would like to underscore that we will continue extending our work in the four main areas of the project – advocacy, investigation, promotion and training. We will also place special emphasis upon the culture of legality, for which we have already held meetings, at least in Mexico, with Supreme Court justices, the Council of Judges and academics.

Finally, I would like to thank the members of the committee that I chair, all those who join with us in the activities this year and, mainly, the 384 newspapers that month in and month out have been showing us their support by publishing our campaign of ads encouraging the general public and their readers to join in this battle.

Thank you very much.