The Rapporteur’s Burden: The Battle Over Free Speech at the OAS

Catalina Botero, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States makes a point during a meeting in 2010.

by Rick Rockwell

Ecuador and Venezuela have made their point.  However, it remains to be seen if they have won the battle.

What’s at issue here is more than just a diplomatic row at the Organization of American States (OAS).  This is really about how powerful centralized governments, which have a track record of having little patience with critical media outlets, are now using the same tactics of intimidation against an office at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is appointed to protect free speech in the hemisphere.  (For more, please see “Muzzling the Rapporteur: An Attack on a Champion of Free Speech.”)

Last week, the OAS approved a measure co-sponsored by Ecuador and Venezuela designed to weaken the power of the Office of the Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Expression.  Rapporteur Catalina Botero, and her staff have written several critical reports and news releases, which highlight the repressive moves of Ecuador, Venezuela and other governments in the hemisphere.

Experts on the OAS and on human rights in Latin America, along with those who know the diplomatic intricacies of the Inter-American system say despite the vote, this is only a recommendation.  The system may not change. Although the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Chile, among other nations voted in favor of the recommendation, they did so with a notation saying that any recommendation could not be applied that would weaken or erode the powers of the Special Rapporteur’s office.

So does this boil down to a lot of diplomatic double-speak?  A vote is held after numerous powerful media organizations and free speech groups, such as The New York Times and the Committee to Protect Journalists, publicly voice their displeasure but the end result is simply a defensive and critical recommendation that amounts to a meaningless resolution?

Not hardly.  By getting the recommendation passed, Ecuador and Venezuela have created the classic chilling effect.  Won’t Botero and her staff think twice before issuing any further reports or news releases that take on Ecuador or Venezuela or the thin-skinned presidents who run those countries? Or perhaps other countries who also have presidents who love to frame the media as the enemy?  It’s no irony that Botero has been mum on these attacks.  If she speaks out, she puts herself and her office in a poor diplomatic position.  Likewise, she can’t respond to media requests about this diplomatic dust up.  And until this matter of the recommendation and what will become of it is cleared, it will be difficult for her to issue any public condemnation of the nations involved without diplomatic counter-fire that she is taking them on as revenge. In effect, she’s frozen in the silence of self-censorship.

By its nature, self-censorship is not only hard to identify but to fight.  Creating the Office of the Special Rapporteur represented not only a symbolic fight against this problem in Latin America but also gave media workers throughout the hemisphere some hope that a governmental body somewhere might fight on their behalf.

Unless Jose Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the OAS makes it clear that this recommendation will not be put into action or clarifies that Botero and her team are free to move forward as before, then in effect the Office of the Special Rapporteur’s public work will cease or will only go forward in a very circumscribed way.  It is also possible that Dinah Shelton, the Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights could announce a rejection of these recommendations.  But that announcement may not come until the commission meets in March

Unless those rejections or clarifications are forthcoming, the state censors will have truly notched another victory.

(The photo of Catalina Botero is from the Organization of American States and is in the public domain.  To hear an interview with Claudio Grossman, a former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the recent OAS vote and other concerns about threats to the Inter-American system on human rights, please check the latest episode of Latin Pulse, below.)

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.
This entry was posted in "The New York Times", Committee to Protect Journalists, Diplomacy, Ecuador, Free Speech, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Latin America, Organization of American States, Self-Censorship, Venezuela and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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