Public Order, Violence against Speakers / Impunity
Perozo and others v. Venezuela
Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of
Closed Expands Expression
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The Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a Judgment declaring the State of Colombia internationally responsible for the death of journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal and for the failure to guarantee his right to freedom of expression. Carvajal was murdered on April 16, 1998 amid a general atmosphere of impunity for the murders of journalists in Colombia at that time. The Court found that Carvajal was killed in retaliation for his work as a journalist, and that the lack of a proper criminal investigation into his murder constituted a violation of the state’s obligation to guarantee his right to life. For the Court, both the homicide and the lack of investigation constituted a violation of the right to free expression. It emphasized that the combination of violence and impunity has a twofold negative effect: first, a chilling effect on other journalists covering similar stories, and second, on the community that will no longer receive complete information.
The Court also held the State responsible for the violation of the right to judicial guarantees for the investigations into the murder, for the violation of the right to personal integrity and right to protection of the family for Carvajal’s relatives. The Court also held that the rights to freedom of movement and residence of some of Nelson Carvajal’s relatives were violated because they were forced to leave their permanent resident out of fear for their safety.
On April 16, 1988, a man shot Nelson Carvajal Carvajal in Pitalito (Huila), Colombia. Nelson Carvajal was a journalist, director of the radio programs “Mirador de la Semana” [View of the Week], “Amanecer en el Campo” [Dawn in the Field] and “Tribuna Médica” [Medical Tribune]” broadcasted by the radio station Radio Sur. Carvajal was also a teacher and director of the Los Pinos Education Center. Through his work as a journalist, he reported on matters of local interest, particularly on irregularities in the administration of public funds, acts of corruption and money laundering from drug trafficking in the area and in the department of Huila. [p. 38]
The Colombian authorities carried out an investigation and sought prosecution of the alleged perpetrators. The Prosecutor’s Office followed various leads to determine the motive for Nelson Carvajal Carvajal’s murder and the persons involved. One lead resulted in the trial of a local businessman, a former Councilman, and another individual, culminated in an acquittal in 2000, which was upheld in 2001. The Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office continued the investigation and followed new lines of investigation to determine who was responsible. The investigation remains open.
Several relatives of Nelson Carvajal and participants in the proceedings were threatened during the course of the investigations. As a result, nine of Nelson Carvajal’s relatives had to leave the country due to security concerns.
On March 13, 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a Judgment declaring the State of Colombia internationally responsible for the death of journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal and for the failure to guarantee his right to freedom of expression. The Court held the State responsible for the violation of the right to judicial guarantees for an investigation into the murder, for the violation of the right to personal integrity and right to protection of the family of Carvajal’s relatives. The Court also held that the rights to freedom of movement and residence of some of Nelson Carvajal’s relatives were violated.
The Court viewed the present case within the context of pervasive violence against journalists in Colombia. It highlighted in particular that in 1998, Colombia was ranked first in the world for executed journalists, and was listed as the “deadliest place for press in the world.” The Court noted that between 1977 and 2015, 152 Colombian journalists were executed because of their profession, and more than a third of these homicides occurred between 1996 and 2005. [p. 167]
The Court recalled that, according to its case law, the State has a duty to reasonably prevent human rights violations and to investigate them in a serious manner with the means at its disposal. These investigations should aim to identify those responsible and impose the corresponding sanctions. Finally, the State has a duty to provide adequate reparations to the victims. In this regard, the Court indicated that “the absence of effective mechanisms to investigate violations of the right to life and the weakness of the justice systems to deal with such violations may lead to a climate of impunity in the States, and in certain contexts and circumstances, could prompt widespread situations or serious patterns of impunity, thus encouraging and perpetuating the recurrence of violations.” [p. 164]
In the present case, the Court stated that there was no doubt that Nelson Carvajal’s death was linked to his work as a journalist. The Court determined that Colombia violated its obligation to investigate and prosecute his murder. Also, it indicated that the impunity in this case was particularly serious as nearly 20 years after his murder, the investigation is still ongoing and the persons responsible for the murder have not been identified. Moreover, the Court noted that there was a wave of killings of journalists during the time of the facts, accompanied by high levels of impunity. [p. 166] It noted that the Colombian justice system has encountered difficulties investigating those responsible for the attacks against journalists and that the excessive duration of investigations aggravates the effects of impunity.
Based on the above considerations, the Court found that the murder of Nelson Carvajal falls within a broad context of impunity for the murders of journalists that occurred at the time. Further, the inadequate investigation into the murder of Nelson Carvajal by the Colombian authorities constitutes, in itself, a violation of the obligation to guarantee the right to life. Therefore, it determined that the Colombian State is responsible for failing to guarantee the right to life, enshrined in Article 4.1 of the ACHR, in relation to articles 1.1 (obligation to respect rights), 8 (judicial guarantees) and 25 (judicial protection) of the Convention, to the detriment of Nelson Carvajal Carvajal. [p.170]
Regarding the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 13 of the ACHR, the Court reiterated that it has two dimensions: an individual one, referring to the right every person has to express him or herself; and a social dimension, which refers to the right of society to seek and receive different ideas and information. The Court further stated that the exercise of the journalistic profession cannot be separated from the right to freedom of expression.
It indicated that violations of freedom of expression range from excessive restrictions to total suppression, and the killing of journalists is one of the most violent ways to suppress freedom of expression. It emphasized that the combination of violence and impunity has a two-fold negative effect: first, a chilling effect on other journalists covering similar stories, and second, on the community that will no longer receive relevant information. Thus, for the Court, the respect for and guarantee of the right to life as well as freedom of expression of journalists and social communicators are closely related.
In the present case, the Court stated that Nelson Carvajal’s freedom of expression “was affected precisely by the fact that he could not continue exercising it due to his death and the lack of a proper investigation into it. Therefore, under these particular circumstances, the determination of the State’s responsibility for the violation of that right, must be derived from the State’s responsibility for the violation of Nelson Carvajal’s right to life.” [p.176]
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This is the first time the Inter-American Court has condemned a state in the case of a journalist being killed because of their work. The Court found that Carvajal was killed in retaliation for his work as a journalist, and that the lack of a proper criminal investigation into his murder constituted a violation of the state’s obligation to guarantee his right to life. For the Court both the homicide and the lack of investigation constituted a violation of the right to free expression. It emphasized that the combination of violence and impunity has a twofold negative effect: first, a dissuasive effect on other journalists covering similar stories, and second, on the community that will no longer receive relevant information.
Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Gustavo Mohme, President of the Inter American Press Association celebrated the “landmark ruling” and stated that “this is a key decision for the fight against impunity for crimes against journalists not only in Colombia but throughout the region, because it clearly exposes the direct relation that violence has on freedom of the press when adequate protection measures are not in place, and when the State does not investigate and punish those responsible.”
CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna also addressed the decision in a press release and stated that “By directly holding Colombia to account for its failure to investigate the murder and to protect the journalist’s family, the court is signaling that impunity will no longer be tolerated.”
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