“The people who want to talk about limitations on access to information and to free expression are the people who want the poor to stay poor,” said Frank La Rue, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
The 25-year veteran in human rights protection spoke Thursday to students, academics and journalists at the La Salle University campus near the National Stadium in western San José. The discussion, titled “Threats to Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press, a Risk to Democracies in the 21st Century,” covered troubling aspects of La Rue’s work in Latin America and other regions.
La Rue has worked as a journalist and human rights activist in Guatemala for decades and was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2004. He hosts a weekly radio show in Guatemala aimed at preventing youth violence. Freedom of expression is critical, he said, for the economic and social development of democracies around the world.
“The ones who opposes transparency or freedom of expression are the ones responsible for a country’s maladies. … There is no freedom of expression without transparency,” La Rue said. “Those who want to see future economic development in our countries will be disappointed if our governments do not guarantee access to information and modes of expression that are [present on] the Internet.”
During the discussion, La Rue identified four threats to freedom of expression he sees as violence directed at journalists, intimidation of journalists, media conglomeration and Internet censorship. He said the definition of a journalist is not limited to reporters associated with traditional media outlets, as global violence is also directed at citizen reporters and bloggers.
La Rue’s Costa Rica visit came the day after the president of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo, announced he would be submitting to his country’s legislature a bill that would regulate media and the practice of journalism. Data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) show that in 2010, nine journalists were killed in Honduras – three of those, CPJ confirmed, were killed specifically because of their reporting. In 2011, four more Honduran journalists died, though no motive has been confirmed. Those numbers, La Rue said, make Honduras the per capita deadliest country in the world for journalists. In 2011, Pakistan was the deadliest country in the world for journalists overall, with 11 reporters murdered.
Lobo didn’t mention the specific contents of the bill, according to a statement issued by the Inter American Press Society (IAPA), a press-freedom watchdog group.
“Journalism has no greater virtue than that which democracy demands,” said Gustavo Mohme, IAPA’s director of the Committee on Press Freedom and Information. “That is to investigate public power, create public opinion and to have the necessary freedom to practice the profession in accordance with its own editorial criteria. Whatever law, if any case it was necessary to add laws, [they] should support these democratic principles.”
La Rue expressed concern not only about the violence toward journalists in Honduras, saying that he planned to make a trip soon to see the situation on the ground, but also mentioned a troubling law that sprung up in Guatemala recently criminalizing criticism of financial institutions.
Latin America, he said, has both high and low points in terms of how countries handle freedom of expression. One of his preoccupations is with access to the Internet as both a fount of knowledge and means for expression.
In Uruguay, he noted, the government is working not only to provide Internet connectivity to all families, but is also issuing simple laptop computers to all school-age children. One or two generations of implementing such a policy, he said, will show huge returns in the economic competitiveness of a country’s workforce.
Also, the region is less prone to government censorship of the Internet than, say, Asia, where China’s “Great Firewall” has essentially neutered the information superhighway the Internet was originally conceived to be, La Rue said.
Still, other threats to freedom of expression are present to some degree or another in most countries.
In Costa Rica, legal actions can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, and attendees at Thursday’s discussion were quick to mention the case of Industrias Infinito, a subsidiary of Canadian mining firm Infinito Gold LTD, who wanted to open a massive, open-pit mine in Las Crucitas, near the Nicaraguan border.
After Costa Rican courts ruled against the mine, the company filed lawsuits accusing anti-mining lawyers of defamation for statements they made to the press.
Edgardo Araya, one of the lawyers accused of defamation, called the company’s actions “a campaign of fear” before his first court appearance to face the allegations.
La Rue reminded attendees that the fundamental power of freedom of expression and to information is that they are human rights and allow individuals, groups and communities to advocate to protect other basic human rights.