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On May 20, 2020, the Inter-American Dialogue, Global Affairs Canada and the Office of the Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hosted “Voices in the Pandemic – Covid-19 and Freedom of Expression in the Americas” to discuss the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on freedom of expression and disinformation, especially in light of emergency measures taken across the hemisphere that limit human rights and access to information. This webinar was moderated by Michael Camilleri, the director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program.
Hugh Adsett, ambassador and permanent representative of Canada to the Organization of American States (OAS), began the event with opening remarks. His comments spoke to the importance for journalists to be able to freely and independently report credible information during the pandemic, since their work gives governments and other organizations valuable insight into how to address the crisis. Adsett also described Canada’s global leadership on freedom of expression, serving as co-host with the United Kingdom of the Global Conference for Media Freedom last year, which led to the establishment of the Media Freedom Coalition. Canada’s engagement with the OAS on these issues is crucial to advancing multilateral cooperation to tackle regional challenges associated with promoting media freedom.
Countries in Latin America have seen varying levels of disregard for fundamental liberties in the name of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Edison Lanza, special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, discussed several trends that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has observed in the region, the first being the establishment of a “state of exception,” referring to the state’s decision to transcend the law and human rights in favor of the public good. While this measure provides states with the ability to respond more quickly to the pandemic, it has also given repressive states the excuse to restrict public access to information and freedom of expression, which Lanza declared is counterproductive to the goal of preventing the propagation of the virus. As an example, he referenced the decision by Bolivia’s interim government to criminalize disinformation, a repressive measure that threatens independent journalism.
Rachael Kay, deputy executive director of IFEX, echoed previous statements about government responses to the pandemic, stating that IFEX members have described the restrictions on freedoms in many states in the region as “arbitrary” and “used to violate rights.” She explained the selective sharing of official information regarding case numbers, testing, and other relevant public health data from the highest levels of government in countries such as Brazil, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Virtual press conferences have given leaders the opportunity to dodge uncomfortable questions, demonstrating a clear lack of transparency. Finally, Kay followed up Lanza’s point about the suspension of access to information in countries including Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. Most of the countries that have implemented extreme measures to curtail human rights are those that IFEX has already raised concern over, demonstrating that the pandemic is only exacerbating existing trends.
Frank La Rue, advocacy and human rights director at Fundamedios and former UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection for the right to freedom of opinion and expression, also focused on governments’ mistaken use of states of exception to restrict civil liberties for political purposes. In terms of access to information, many governments have prevented citizens from directly accessing public health data and decision-making by limiting press conferences and openly challenging the press. La Rue described the importance of accountability to show the public and the international community that already-scarce resources are being used efficiently and effectively to prevent deaths and strengthen the overall response, as public trust in institutions is notoriously low across the region.
Work by civil society organizations is vital to keep governments in check and support freedom of expression in a myriad of ways, but social media platforms also play an essential role in promoting access to information by regulating a space for the dissemination of factual information. Eleonora Rabinovich, government affairs and public policy senior manager for the Southern Cone at Google, stated that the company’s mission is firmly aligned with the provision of fair and timely information. To combat systematic disinformation, Google connects users with useful and credible information through their search engine as well as in apps such as YouTube. Rabinovich also referenced the community guidelines on YouTube that can be used to eliminate content that threatening someone’s safety, and similar guidelines on other Google apps that limit false or distorted information. Finally, she described ways in which Google is aiding in the effort to combat disinformation and promote freedom of expression by launching a fund to support local journalism as well as organizations that help journalists.
The speakers’ remarks were followed by a Q&A period with the audience. The audience asked questions regarding the criminalization of disinformation in several Brazilian provinces and the case of Nicaragua. To the latter question, Panelists responded that governments and regional organizations must support civil society organizations and place pressure on Nicaragua to stop endangering its citizens.