Choosing the Next Advocate for Freedom of Expression in Latin America

The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is up for election. Why should this position matter to all of us?

For one, freedom of expression (FOE) is under threat throughout the world—perhaps now more than ever. In Egypt last week, three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven and ten years in prison for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood by means of false reports. Elsewhere, a Honduran correspondent for Radio Progreso was arrested merely for broadcasting an indigenous community’s refusal to recognize a mayor they claim was fraudulently elected. And in Brazil, a journalist was beaten unconscious by military police for covering a protest against the FIFA World Cup in the city of Belo Horizonte. Reports show that such attacks continue to grow in various corners of the world: According to Freedom House, 2014 marked the worst year yet for freedom of press globally.

Enter the Special Rapporteur, whose mandate it is to protect truth even when it collides with power. Established in 1997, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression works to ensure that everyone—journalists, whistleblowers, and ordinary citizens alike—can freely speak and obtain information. To date, the Special Rapporteur has influenced national legislation and affected the outcome of numerous cases involving freedom of expression in the Americas. It has accomplished this through assisting in strategic litigation in the Inter-American system, issuing precautionary measures to protect people facing prosecution for expressing their views, and providing a public forum for FOE issues throughout Latin America.

For obvious reasons, the work of the Special Rapporteur has engendered controversy; it is no surprise that free speech sometimes upsets those in power (the state and private actors alike). The mandate has been one of several flashpoints in ongoing debates to “reform” the Inter-American human rights system. For this reason, the selection process of the next Rapporteur must be transparent and credible.

To assist in in this process, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), and the Open Society Justice Initiative have jointly produced a bulletin presenting the views of the six candidates standing for election. As organizations committed to strengthening the Inter-American human rights system, we believe that civil society has a vital role to play in contributing to the integrity of the election process and ensuring that it promotes candidates of the highest competence.

The bulletin—available in both Spanish and English—presents the views of the candidates on four questions, ranging from the most pressing FOE issues facing the region to the principles that should guide the disclosure of classified information to the public. The collaborating organizations have presented these responses to IACHR members, who will interview and select the next rapporteur in July.

A clear-eyed view of the experience of courts and commissions around the world highlights the importance of transparency in elections. In Strasbourg, for example, the Parliamentary Assembly recently created a standing committee for the sole purpose of evaluating and recommending judicial candidates to the European Court of Human Rights. Similarly, the Addis Ababa Guidelines on the Independence and Impartiality of Members of Human Rights Treaty Bodies aim to do the same by guiding UN treaty body experts to act with independence, impartiality, and transparency.

Freedom of thought and expression, access to information, and protection against reprisals for exercising these rights, all require openness and transparency for their very existence. As threats on freedom of expression intensify, those mandated to protect these rights—including the Office of the Special Rapporteur in the IACHR—must be selected on the basis of the principles they promote. Any process to the contrary would undermine the power of their work.

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Freedom of Expression must be respected and protected

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