Tensions were high on March 22 as foreign ministers from the Western Hemisphere were called into an Extraordinary Session of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States.
The matter before them was Ecuador and Venezuela’s demand that the OAS budget be changed to exclude funds from nonmember nations for the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, reduce the budget of the Special Raporteur for Freedom of Expression and move the IACHR out of Washington, preferably to Argentina. The demand to reduce the budget of the Commission on Freedom of Expression is the most serious. What lies behind Ecuador and Venezuela’s attacks?
In 2012, Fundamedios, the NGO that seeks to protect freedom of expression in Ecuador, reported that 172 journalists were threatened and attacked. Furthermore, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Ecuadorean government has shut down 11 media stations for politically motivated reasons.
Shortly before the OAS session in Washington, officials from the Ecuadorean Secretary of Communications launched a nine-minute attack ad against Fundamedios claiming that its statements and videos before the IACHR were false. The advertisement insisted that “Ecuador respects without restrictions liberty of expression.”
Meantime, the same government agency targeted radio stations in the Amazonia provinces and threatened indigenous communities that oppose the president’s plans to cut down virgin forest to allow sugar cane to be planted. It also prohibited media organizations from “directly or indirectly promoting a candidate or view during the presidential campaign.” President Rafael Correa, a polemical leftist economist, won a second term in February elections by getting 57 percent of the vote. With this level of broad popular support, why does he clamp down on freedom of expression?
We must conclude that the president has surrounded himself with people who have thin skins and fear criticism. They prefer to threaten journalists with fines and jail time rather than live with a vibrant free press.
In Venezuela, the last independent TV station, Globovisión, is closing down after a campaign of harassment and the imposition of a $2 million fine for allegedly “distorting and reporting false news coverage of a prison riot.” Eighty percent of its stock was sold to Juan Domingo Cordero, president of an important insurance company and a close friend of the president of the National Assembly.
The government has also imposed exorbitant fines on El Universal and other independent newspapers for insulting the government. Between the fine and the high cost of newsprint, these newspapers are looking for buyers, too. Freedom of expression is slowly being stifled so that the government can monopolize the information that citizens receive. In an age of social media, this would seem to be a useless task.
In Bolivia, similar “insults” to the government result in harassment of journalists and fines. While Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua joined in the Ecuadorean demand, the Caribbean members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA) did not do so; nor did Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada and the United States. The four ALBA continental nations were marginalized and on this occasion failed to modify the rules and process of the OAS. Only Argentina prevented a walk-out by Ecuador and Venezuela by presenting a motion that enabled the OAS to continue the debate over the Special Raporteur of Freedom of Expression and the other demands.
The contest will continue, and Ecuador will seek to lead its ALBA allies in rejecting liberal democratic concepts, such as freedom of expression. The significance of the OAS session is that the ALBA countries failed to undermine a critical democratic principle of the Inter-American system, namely freedom of expression.
If anything, the criticism has strengthened the resolve of the Western Hemisphere to retain its ideals and maintain the right of citizens to criticize their governments and bring complaints before an international body that accepts the sovereignty of the people, not the governors.
Diana Villiers Negroponte is a trustee of Freedom House.