Latin America must respect freedom of expression and ensure the safety of writers and journalists

By Alicia Quiñones

London, 30 October 2019 – Recent weeks have witnessed large-scale and sometimes violent protests across Latin America and the Caribbean, with demonstrators aggrieved by an overwhelming number of issues, including institutional corruption, electoral fraud rising fuel prices and reduction in wages. In many cases, judicial and military authorities have responded with acts of repression and have attempted to unduly restrict the right to free expression, peaceful assembly and protest.

Following the outbreak of protests, a State of Emergency has been declared in Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia. This has enabled the excessive use of force and the restriction of access to journalists attempting to cover the protests, some of whom have been beaten. Meanwhile, in Haiti social calls have intensified following a social, economic and political crisis that began over a year ago. The curtailment of freedom of expression has been severe.

Latin American leaders find themselves at a crucial moment in which they can demonstrate their true commitment to protecting the rights of their citizens. Journalists, writers and others should speak out and inform without fear of reprisals, all the more so when literature and journalism are the mirror of our lives,” said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.

Over the last six weeks, Haiti has seen a renewed wave of protests calling for the resignation of the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, after he was accused of overseeing the embezzlement of millions of dollars of public funds. It is a social, political and economic crisis that has led its citizens to say that this is “worse than anything they have ever experienced.”

Journalists have paid a heavy price. Two journalists have been killed; prominent radio journalist Néhéme Joseph, was killed on 10 October, and Pétion Rospide, reporter for Radio Sans Fin, was shot dead on 10 June during one of the protests. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), has noted attacks on journalists, raising particular concern about an incident during which a journalist was shot by a Haitian senator who opened fire outside Haitian parliament on 23 September.

The IACHR has urged the Haitian State to “adopt all measures necessary to ensure the right to peaceful assembly and to take urgent action to preserve Haitians’ lives and integrity, as well as ensuring that journalists can do their job.”

In the face of the crisis writers, journalists and members of PEN Haiti made a call to the nation in June 2019 and, in October, they made a global call to expose the situation in their country.

In Ecuador, on 1 October 2019, President Lenin Moreno announced a series of economic adjustments (Decree 883), which included a reduction in public sector salaries and the end to fuel subsidies. On 2 October, an indigenous movement began protests against these economic measures. Moreno declared a State of Emergency, which tightened restrictions on protests and the ability of journalists to carry out their work following the imposition of a “curfew and militarisation” in the country’s capital, Quito.

During the protests, the media and journalists faced attack. According to FUNDAMEDIOS, at least 138 journalists were attacked, at least 10 of whom work for print media outlets. The protests, which ended on 13 October 2019, have left at least seven dead and more than 1,000 arrested.

“Not only do we call on the authorities of these countries to protect the right to protest and to create an enabling environment for peaceful protest. We also join in solidarity with the PEN Centres of these countries,” declared Emmanuel Pierrat, Chair of PEN’s Writers for Peace Committee and President of French PEN.

In Chile, citizens have taken to the streets since 16 October following President Sebastián Piñera’s announcement of an increase in ticket prices for the Subte – Santiago city’s subway network. The likes of such protests have not been seen since the dictatorship for decades. The protests led Piñera to declare a State of Emergency, in which he invoked the State Security Law, which places restrictions on freedom of assembly for 15 days and imposes military command. The law has led to, among other things, the designation of a curfew, as well as the deployment of military personnel and what has been described by the IACHR as the excessive use of force against civilians, provoking an escalation of the protests. To date, at least 19 deaths have been recorded.

Chilean writers and journalists have begun to raise their voices through public actions, campaigns and statements, such as the movement of Autoras de Chile (AUCH!) – a group of feminist authors, who released a declaration explaining what is happening in the country.

Poet and President of PEN Chile, Jorge Ragal said in a statement: “We value peaceful protests, in which the public are exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression, protesting against inequality, corruption, abuse, insecurity (…) We note with concern the repeated reports of detention and torture of protestors simply for expressing their opinion. (…) we are not in a state of war and as such the state of emergency should be brought to an end. The way forward is through dialogue, coming together, not through repression and division.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, numerous cases of attacks on journalists and the media have been registered in Chile, including intimidation campaigns on social media that encourage acts of violence against the press, such as arbitrary detentions, shots fired at journalists, or the arson of the offices of the newspaper El Mercurio in the city of Valparaíso. Additionally, according to the National Human Rights Institute of Chile (Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Chile), at least three Argentine journalists hoping to cover the protests were detained at Santiago de Chile Airport on 27 October.

“All States have the duty to protect freedom of expression and the safety of journalists carrying out their work, and this duty gets into sharper focus at times of social crises, political upheavals, or civilian demonstrations, as we are seeing in Chile at the moment. People have the right to demonstrate peacefully and participate in political processes. Human rights cannot be suspended without due process, and that too if there are specific acts of violence. And even then, the suspension can only be in a proportionate manner and subject to judicial oversight. There should not be any direct repression or arbitrary detention of peaceful protestors. The state must also ensure that any individual whose rights are violated has access to appropriate remedies, including legal representation, and the swift investigation of their claims, said Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International.

In Bolivia, after a day of disputed presidential elections during which Evo Morales was declared the winner, Bolivians began to protest following allegations of electoral fraud. The protests began on 21 October 2019 and led to Morales declaring a State of Emergency stating that an attempted coup d’état was underway. The United Nations has denounced the excessive use of force used against protestors. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression have noted stigmatising comments made by some senior officials against the press, while in cities like Cochambamba at least six journalists have reportedly been injured and a reporter for Los Tiempos newspaper was beaten by riot police, according to the Bolivian National Press Association.

Given current circumstances and the attacks on freedom of expression in these Latin American and Caribbean countries, PEN international calls on each government to:

  • Respect the right to protest. Every State is obliged to guarantee the right to protest, which in turn guarantees the right to freedom of expression and assembly;
  • Ensure that military and police forces do not harm journalists covering the protests, and overturn any disproportionate action against protestors; 
  • Respect their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Haiti, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile are State Parties.