March 2nd, 7 p.m.: Edgar Quintero López, 57, finished his daily news program “Noticias y Algo Más” (News and Something Else) at Radio Luna, in Palmira, Colombia. As usual, the program included criticism of local politicians and discussed corruption cases. A few minutes later, as Quintero was about to enter a bakery, a gunman on a motorcycle shot him seven times.
“Quintín,” as he was known in Palmira, was the second journalist to be killed in fewer than 20 days in Colombia and part of a broader pattern of violence and attacks against journalism in the region in recent months.
Since October, eleven journalists across six countries—two in Colombia, two in Honduras, three in Mexico, two in Brazil, one in Paraguay, and one in Peru—have been murdered, according to the Inter-American Press Association.
Murders are the most extreme, but not the only threat. Media professionals and outlets have been victim of escalating physical attacks, threats censorship, surveillance, and restrictive laws. The culprits range from governments, narcotics traffickers, local courts, and security forces—legal and illegal.
The deteriorating situation of freedom of expression however, has not been met with a strong, unified response by the region. While the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has called for an investigation of the murders, governments have failed to follow up, and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights hasn’t pursued the issue. And the recent incidents didn’t even make it on to the agenda of the Seventh Summit of the Americas this past April in Panama.
The exclusion of the topic from the Summit agenda was a real loss. Historically, the Summit has been one of the main regional forums to raise issues of human and civil rights. One of the Summit high points was at the Quebec City meeting in 2000 after then-President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, won re-election to a controversial third term in the midst of international criticism for attacks on freedom of expression and rigged elections.
Today it’s the governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and Nicaragua that represent the greatest systematic threat to freedom of expression. In Venezuela, for instance, 37 newspapers suspended or reduced their print editions last year as a result of the paper shortage produced by President Nicolás Maduro’s currency controls. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa often takes to the airwaves to discredit media outlets and journalists that criticize his government. The presidential rants against critical media have sparked a level of self-censorship among journalists and media outlets that fear not just the president’s tirades but also being slapped with a lawsuit, as Correa did to El Universo in which he filed a libel suit worth $ 40 million in 2011 after they criticized his government. Today, there are about 100 cases filed against Ecuadoran outlets under the Communications Law, created in 2013, which has led to about 30 sanctions—most decisions are still pending.
But even beyond the worst cases, freedom of expression in a region marked by—and rightly proud of—its democracies has declined overall. Violence against reporters and restrictions to media outlets are clear violations of the American Convention on Human Rights. Article 13 of the document, ratified by 25 countries, states that the right of expression cannot be restricted by governments, private controls, and other means “tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.”
Yet, according to the World Press Freedom 2015, released by Reporters Without Borders, only two Latin-American countries, Jamaica and Costa Rica, score at the top of the list in press freedom. Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba are at the bottom of the list.
Even in Brazil, journalists have seen their jobs become more dangerous. Local journalists investigating cases of corruption and covering street protests have been targeted by police forces and local judiciaries. This year 11 journalists were victim of aggressions by the police in São Paulo, Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro while covering rallies, according to Abraji (the Brazilian association of investigative journalism). Regarding judicial censorship, the website Eleição Transparente (Open Elections) listed 184 proceedings to remove content or avoid the publication of news during the last elections in Brazil, in 2014.
Since in many of these cases, governments are responsible, protest letters are insufficient. To reduce violations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights must quickly evaluate reported violations and take the necessary actions, including issuing statements when journalists or the media are at risk, issuing protective measures (medidas cuatelares), and rapidly handing down recommendations. At the same time, given the steady deterioration, now is the time for the new Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, to call for the discussion of this issue on high level.
Unfortunately, “Quintín” will not be the last journalist killed in Latin America, but the inter-American system if it acts with celerity can ensure that he’s not just one more in an continuing and swelling wave of repression against freedom of expression and violence against its practitioners.