Muzzling the Rapporteur: An Attack on a Champion of Free Speech

Catalina Botero, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States speaks at a session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., in October of 2011.

by Rick Rockwell

The world is replete with evidence those in authority would rather kill the messenger than deal with the news of whatever problem the messenger has delivered.  Now, Ecuador and Venezuela have taken it a step further.  They want to muzzle and leash the watchdog appointed to protect the messenger.

The watchdog in this case is Catalina Botero Marino, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States (OAS).  Last month, Ecuador and Venezuela put forward a proposal at the OAS, which would restructure Botero’s mission and limit her impact.  They are pushing for a vote later this month to pass their plan.

To some, Botero’s position may sound like the job of an international bureaucrat with a fancy title, but her role is essential in casting light on free speech issues throughout the hemisphere.  More than shedding light on these cases, her office works with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to push countries into wider respect for freedom of speech, an essential cornerstone of democracy.

Why are Ecuador and Venezuela upset?  Let’s list:

  • Last year, the commission issued a report criticizing Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa for using multimillion dollar lawsuits against journalists to stifle their critical articles and create a nationwide chill on speech that would have the temerity to question the government. Ecuador rejected the findings.
  • At the end of last month, Botero condemned an Ecuadoran court for sentencing the director of the Ecuadoran daily Diario Hoy to three months in prison; he was found guilty of violating the country’s so-called “respect laws” (desacato laws, in Spanish).  His paper had questioned how the chairman of the board of Ecuador’s Central Bank had used his powers.
  • Also, last year, the commission accused Venezuela of censoring the media for a variety of incidents concerning magazine and television journalism, including one case that led to the eventual imprisonment of an opposition politician “for distributing false information.”
  • Last year, Botero’s review of free speech in the hemisphere included almost 40 pages of problematic cases in Venezuela, second only to Mexico.

Further, Correa launched a campaign to discredit Botero, saying she had forfeited her objectivity because of her connections to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Fundamedios, a free speech group that is based in Ecuador and also has highlighted Correa’s anti-media policies.

As noted earlier this week (please see “Of Oligarchs & Media Owners”), sometimes drilling down to the details of these cases reveals these disputes are really about left-wing governments fighting entrenched conservative oligarchies and their shield-bearers and leaders in the corporate media.  But often, that is not the case.  And Botero’s very careful examination of these cases actually provides the necessary details for both the commission and outside experts to analyze the conditions for free speech and draw their own conclusions.

Her critics might say she stands too often with the region’s corporate interests.  Even if that is so, isn’t her crusade for better conditions so everyone can criticize the government and other powerful forces still essential to constructing better democracies throughout the hemisphere? In this case, if Correa and his ally President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela manage to defang this watchdog for the media and free expression, the quality of democracy in the hemisphere will be all the poorer.  Botero is actually fighting for rights that many of us take for granted daily.  That casual indifference to those rights is what these powerful presidents are banking on as their diplomatic emissaries work to hem in the rapporteur and her office.

(The photo is by Juan Manuel Herrera of the staff of the Organization of American States and is in the public domain.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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2 Responses to Muzzling the Rapporteur: An Attack on a Champion of Free Speech

  1. Pingback: Ecuador: Correa’s Assault on the Media & Democracy | Sutradhar's Market

  2. Pingback: The Rapporteur’s Burden: The Battle Over Free Speech at the OAS | Sutradhar's Market

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