The IACHR's special rapporteur for Freedom of Expression talks about the lack of access to information, political and judicial strategies to weaken the free press, and the dangers of social networks, among others.
In pandemic, lack of transparency and access to information. Excuse or...?
Excuse. And the pandemic cannot be an excuse to avoid accountability. It is a critical moment and the State must reinforce its obligation to inform the population.
What valid justification is there for not publishing information that, according to the law, must be public?
None. Expenditure, planned or emergency, must be fully reported. That, except in matters of national security, cannot be hidden under any circumstances.
To what do you attribute that the authorities are not clear when they give the figures of the pandemic?
The motivation of governments that violate the people's right to information are political. They seek not to recognize inappropriate handling, that there is inadequacy or that they have not wanted to take the measures required by the virus, and for this purpose they prefer to manipulate or hide information.
And, regarding public funds, why are they not clear?
One of the main scourges of Latin America before the pandemic was corruption. And now we are seeing more reports of unclear handling and corruption. They hide the information, because they need to hide the irregularity.
What is your opinion of the officials who decide not to answer or give interviews to the media that denounce their irregularities?
When they do not want to respond, it is because they evade their duty to account to the population. Too many, too many, officials are evading democratic control. And the media is the watchdog of democracy.
Is every official accountable to the population, including the media?
Of course. The media are the vehicle for basic social control to be exercised in democracy. If the question is relevant, it should be answered.
Who determines that relevance?
For transparency, questions inherent in the officer's duties should be answered.
When questioning officials about possible acts of corruption, what should a president do?
Investigate and sanction. Corruption has a strong component of impunity.
Why does the alternative of governments always end up killing the messenger?
There is a setback in the region regarding this. Stigmatization has become commonplace. Before, only certain governments did it; too many do now. They do so because it is a way of shirking their responsibilities. Instead of being held accountable, they attack to try to make the population not believe.
What risk does a society run without the media?
Without means, the population's right to receive the information is suppressed. The role of the media is fundamental. Attacking them or trying to make them lose their independence is ultimately a way to undermine freedoms and democracy.
Social Networks are radically transforming citizen participation. What is their role?
On the one hand, they have opened up the capacity for political participation of those who previously could not have a public space. On the other hand, they are useful for reporting corruption and abuse of power. And on the other, they allow the media to reproduce their information and their role.
And what are dangers?
The operations of bad faith actors who coordinate and coordinate attacks on journalists, civil society actors, critics and adversaries, through paid information, polarization, hate speech and deliberate disinformation.
Political, government and opposition 'call centers'. What's your opinion?
Parties have a responsibility to democracy; They should not use mechanisms to misinform.
Should social networks be regulated?
All the attempts at state regulation that we have seen in the region have been to establish censorship. You have to keep thinking about what is the solution to the problem, but state regulation is dangerous.
Could the networks come to replace a research column or an opinion column?
They are different roles. The media generate professional opinion and information. The platforms are transmitters, spaces to share, debate and refute.
Do we need to learn to discuss?
Yes, among the risks is polarization, disqualification forcing, bubbles and cracks between people with different thoughts. You have to learn to debate and exchange ideas without aggression or threats.
What is the danger of the phrase: 'freedom of expression with limits'?
That is very dangerous. Obviously, freedom of expression is not an absolute right, but the limits are exceptional and must be established in accordance with international law treaties.
What are the limits?
Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights establishes that criminal law or disproportionate sanctions can never be the answer to the exercise of freedom of expression and of the press. And that there are other means that less affect freedom of expression.
Many people think that freedom of expression applies only to the media and therefore do not defend it. How does this freedom directly affect people?
Everyone in a democratic society exercise freedom of expression, including citizens. It is a universal right and today it is clear that everyone who has access to the internet can exercise it. There is freedom of expression in the right that everyone has to think of the world as they want. Freedom of expression is also exercised with lifestyle, sexual and ideological orientation ... with all aspects of human personality.
Ads paid for with public funds to attack the media. What do you think?
It is a serious way of stigmatizing the media, using public funds in addition. It is dangerous, too, because it exposes the attacked media to possible acts of violence by government supporters, or even legal sanctions.
Journalists who actively participate on social media: yes or no?
They have the right to freedom of expression.
Journalists with political affiliation. Valid or unsustainable?
From the point of view of freedom of expression, it is valid. From journalistic ethics, it affects independence.
What happens when politicians buy the media?
The medium loses all independence. Not being subject to manipulation or political control is key in every medium.
And when politicians besiege the media, communicators and opinion makers with civil and criminal lawsuits?
The goal is to silence and intimidate them. And that certainly affects freedom of expression. The abusive use of these lawsuits should be avoided.
When those lawsuits proceed, does the judicial system fail, the politician who denounced, the journalist sued or the citizens who do not question?
Justice has to understand what the function of freedom of expression is and must reject these demands as soon as it receives them. That politicians resort to that speaks clearly of them. And if people reward them, democracy as a whole has a problem.
Slander and injury: jail time or civil claim?
Civil and under the standard of real malice, with proportional sanction.
What should be the monetary limit of a civil conviction?
Something that does not become censorship or prevent you from continuing to exercise and that the medium remains open.
What do you think of a judge prohibiting a media outlet from publishing the image of a person questioned for corrupting that same state organ?
It is a clear form of censorship. If the subject is of public interest and shows a reprehensible fact and that may also give rise to an investigation, it is not an excuse to present the right to the image. Freedom of expression is of fundamental interest to the population, and public officials and people are subject to greater scrutiny, especially if we are dealing with a fact of public interest.
Fundamental freedoms versus authoritarianism. Counterbalance or debauchery?
Freedoms are fundamental to democracy. Without full guarantees there is no democracy.
How far should citizen restrictions go due to the pandemic?
Only the bare minimums to stop the virus from spreading and that the system does not crash. But there is no justification for establishing measures to exercise freedom of expression, information or criticism.
There are politicians who say that foreigners should not express an opinion or speak out about the affairs of the country that hosted them. Xenophobia or demagoguery?
Insane. Freedom of expression can be exercised without distinction of borders.
'Black lives matter'. Turning point or will it pass, like everything?
Important turning point in people's consciousness.
Your opinion on the right to be forgotten.
I do not agree. The so-called right to be forgotten involves risks for freedom of expression. The greatest risk is to open the door to delete or unhook information of public interest and to generate immunity for people or officials with a blameworthy past. It is necessary to look for alternative forms for the cases of citizens who are not public and some publication affects them.
Who is winning, democratic institutions or organized crime?
I hope that organized crime does not occupy the role of the State. As long as some criminals give so much money, the problem will continue to exist. The biggest problem is when crime co-opts politics and institutions to ensure impunity.
Homophobia. What does a country tell you in which the Court has filed since 2016 four warnings of unconstitutionality against the prohibition of equal marriage?
Inexplicable. There are already very clear standards in the region, including in the IACHR, that all forms of family must be recognized and there must be no discrimination before the law.