Report to the 71th General Assembly

Charleston, South Carolina

October 2 – 6, 2015

In this period the greatest concern for freedom of expression lies in the handling under strict secrecy that the Interior Ministry has been doing with Guardián, a system of electronic surveillance acquired from a Brazilian company through a $2 million direct purchase.

The software increases the capacity to intercept communications that the police have. With this it is possible to simultaneously access 800 cel phones and 200 desktop phones, it also enables the creation of mirror accounts of up to 100 e-mail subscriptions and the monitoring of up to three social media. The system would bring together telephone tappings that are currently carried out by 22 dependencies of the Interior Ministry and enable the exchange of information and automatically recognizing key words in the conversations.

The efforts of the Archiving and Access to Public Information Center (CAinfo), first through the Access to Information Law and – after its failure – then to achieve that the judiciary require the Interior Ministry to explain the functioning of the program, its extent and, above all, that the controls and guarantees for the pieces of information thus gathered cannot be used in an arbitrary manner clashed with the refusal of the authority. Finally the courts rejected the request, on the understanding that what concerns the functioning of the Guardián is "clearly covered by secrecy."

As regards the Law on Audiovisual Communication Services, better known as the Media Law, passed during the final period of the former administration, Uruguay's new president, Tabaré Vázquez, who took office in March, has complied with his announcement of not proceedings to put it into force while there are before the Supreme Court some 18 claims of unconstitutionality.

On March 9 the Archiving and Access to Public Information Center appeared before the courts because the Interior Ministry, all deadlines having passed, had not responded to its request for information about the Guardián in accordance with legal requirements. In the suit filed with the Administrative Judiciary, to which the newspaper El País had access, CAinfo held that "the laws should ensure that the public can access information about the programs of surveillance of private communications, their extent and the controls existing to ensure that they cannot be used in an arbitrary manner. Consequently, governments should disseminate, at the least, information relative to the regulatory framework of the surveillance programs, the bodies charged with implementing and supervising such programs, the processes of authorization, of selection of objects and the handling of data, as well as technical information about the use of these techniques, including added data concerning their extent."

It felt that there "cannot be admitted" a generic classification of all the information about the Guardián that impedes, no more and no less, public scrutiny of the telecommunications surveillance systems that the government will use. This would amount to a flagrant violation of human rights to information and the people's participation and would imply ignoring all the standards and guarantees regarding classification of public information.

CAinfo warned that international experience indicates that this kind of technological platform "encompasses a very high risk for people's privacy and has been used to abuse the population."

The Appeals Court, which ratified the lower court's sentence, held that the required information is "clearly covered by secrecy," that even the purchase of the system was incidentally disseminated and that its confidentiality responds to reasons of security and protection of the people's rights.

On June 12 the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) protested threats by businessman Carlos Bustin to the weekly Búsqueda over a report that involved the Uruguayan Presidency.

On June 18 the Information Archiving and Access Center reported that it had recorded 37 threats to freedom of expression, of which 15 cases were not denounced, 17 were denounced in the press, four were the object of police action and one went before the courts. Some 40% of these cases were recorded in Montevideo and the rest in inland Uruguay.

The method most used to threaten is the filing of a lawsuit, in addition there is physical harassment, threats and obstruction of the work of the press.

On July 1 National Police Director Julio Guarteche told the Uruguayan Senate's Security Committee that in an investigation into the case of the abduction of a gynecologist he would arrange for the detention of journalists because they were pestering and pressuring investigators, what he called "private violence."

On July 31 the Payasandú newspaper El Telégrafo, with praiseworthy journalistic concern, used a drone to photograph from the air a building that collapsed in the Alcoholes del Uruguay (Alur) plant linked with Ancap, a fuel monopoly in Uruguay. The photos showed the seriousness of the collapse of a building complained about because of its high cost and not looking solid enough despite the money spent on it.

The company, which had not officially reported on the accident, denounced the newspaper for having used the drone to cover news and the IAPA for giving its support to the newspaper.