Press Freedom, Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
The Case of Orlando Sierra Hernández
Closed Expands Expression
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The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that the State of Paraguay was responsible for the murder of journalist Santiago Leguizamón Zaván and violated the personal and collective right to freedom of thought and expression, as enshrined in Article 13 of the American Convention of Human Rights. On April 26, 1991, Mr. Leguizamón Zaván was shot and killed. That same day a criminal proceeding was initiated to investigate the murder, but due to various irregularities in the process, the fourteen persons investigated were not tried. After more than fifteen years since the journalist’s homicide, on January 19, 2007, the Inter-American Press Association filed a petition before the Inter-American System on the ground that the crime had gone unpunished. The Court held that the murder affected Mr. Leguizamón Zaván’s individual right to freedom of expression, as he could not carry on his activities as a journalist. The Court also found that the crime affected the collective dimension of the right to freedom of expression, as it had an intimidating or dissuasive effect on journalists in Paraguay.
Santiago Leguizamón Zaván was a journalist from Paraguay who lived in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero, in the Department of Amambay—near the border of Brazil—, considered one of the most dangerous on the continent due to its high crime rates and impunity levels.
Mr. Leguizamón Zaván had an extensive career covering news of significant public interest, such as “actions of authorities and business leaders in issues regarding the environment, lumber contraband, the situation of farmers and indigenous people, corruption, drug trade, and crime and violence in the border zone.” [para. 32]
Mr. Leguizamón Zaván received several threats relating to his journalistic investigations that he made public on his radio program. The Government Delegate of the Department of Amambay offered to provide him with protection, but he rejected that offer over concerns that the assigned guard could be affiliated with the groups threatening him.
On April 26, 1991, he was heading to a restaurant in Pedro Juan Caballero with a colleague to celebrate Journalist Day when they were attacked. Mr. Leguizamón Zaván was killed by armed hitmen. The shooters crossed the border traveling in the direction of Ponta Porã, Brazil. While Mr. Leguizamón Zaván was killed by 21 bullet wounds, his colleague survived the attack.
On the same day that Mr. Leguizamón Zaván was murdered, a criminal proceeding to investigate the episode was initiated. Even though the judge promptly ordered numerous measures, several irregularities arose during the judicial proceedings. On February 20, 2002, the judge decided that the 14 individuals investigated as responsible for the crime could not be prosecuted as they were Brazilian citizens living in Brazil and it was not possible to request their extradition. The local judge also requested that a copy of the judicial record be sent to Brazil in order for the suspects to be prosecuted in the neighboring country. However, that communication itself took seven years to be sent. Brazil communicated to the Paraguay authorities that it was not possible to initiate a criminal proceeding in Brazil, as too much time had passed and the statute of limitations had expired.
The murder of Mr. Leguizamón Zaván was the first murder of a journalist since the return of democracy in Paraguay and it was followed by 19 other journalists’ murders—7 of them in the Department of Amambay as well. Since then, the Department of Amambay became one of the most dangerous zones for journalists in Paraguay.
On January 19, 2007, the Inter-American Press Association filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission declared the case admissible on April 15, 2016. On February 13, 2021, the Commission submitted the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) analyzed the international responsibility of the State of Paraguay regarding violations of the right to life and the individual and collective right to freedom of thought and expression of Santiago Leguizamón Zaván. The central issue brought before the Court was if the murder of Mr. Leguizamón Zaván—a journalist who conducted sensitive investigations and whose crime was never clarified— violated not only his right to life but also the individual and collective right to freedom of thought and expression.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held that there were sufficient elements to conclude that the murder of Mr. Leguizamón Zaván was connected to his journalism. In particular, the Commission affirmed this because he was investigating “issues of public interest that involved powerful groups” and “various statements presented during the investigations linked his homicide with his critical work.” [para. 46] The Commission also stated that from the evidence provided it could be concluded that Mr. Leguizamón Zaván received a series of threats in response to the articles he published, including death threats. Therefore, the Commission determined that the state failed to protect Mr. Leguizamón Zaván and considered that Paraguay was responsible for failing to guarantee his right to life and freedom of thought and expression.
On the other hand, the state of Paraguay recognized its international responsibility regarding the violation of the rights to life and freedom of expression. As per the State’s own acknowledgment, Paraguay had failed to comply with its obligation to prevent such violations through the adoption of suitable measures that were also necessary. The state also recognized that Mr. Leguizamón Zaván, due to his profession as a journalist and the nature of the investigations he carried out, was an individual at risk.
The IACtHR found that Paraguay was aware of the danger that Mr. Leguizamón Zaván was facing but did not take the necessary preventive measures. The Court’s judgment held that the murder not only affected his personal right to freedom of expression, but that it also had an intimidating or dissuasive effect on other journalists in Paraguay. Therefore, it also undermined freedom of expression in its collective dimension.
For the Court, Mr Leguizamón Zaván covered news of great public interest, such as the behavior of public officials and companies in relation to the environment, the situation of indigenous peoples and peasants, corruption and drug trafficking, and cross-border crime and violence.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights reiterated several regional principles about freedom of expression. The Court cited its own assertions in Advisory Opinion OC-5/85 to affirm that the exercise of journalism “cannot be differentiated from freedom of expression” and that journalists are people that “choose to exercise the freedom of expression in a continuous, stable and remunerated way.” [para. 54]
The Court found that murder was an extreme way of censorship that in this case stopped Mr. Leguizamón Zaván from contributing to the public debate on topics of national interest. Additionally, the Court found that Mr. Leguizamón Zaván’s individual right to freedom of thought and expression was affected and that his murder also had a “chilling effect” on his colleagues, thus affecting freedom of expression in its collective dimension.
In light of this, the IACtHR referred to the case of Vélez Restrepo v. Colombia to argue that the state’s failure in investigating acts of aggression and threats against a journalist also breached the obligation to respect and guarantee their individual right to freedom of expression and had a collective impact. In the same sense, the Court mentioned the case of Bedoya Lima v. Colombia to emphasize that “the impunity in crimes committed against journalists has both an individual and collective impact.” [para. 61]
The Court also referred to the Khadija Ismayilova v. Azerbaijan case from the European Court of Human Rights, pointing out that the tribunal, in that case, found that a climate of impunity can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
In the same vein, the Court quoted Abdoulaye Nikiema (Norbert Zongo) v. The Republic of Burkina Faso, by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In that case, the African Court emphasized that the state’s failure to identify and arrest the responsible individuals for the murder of a journalist “could, potentially, cause fear and anxiety in the journalists’ activities.” [para. 62] Moreover, the Court also mentioned Hydara v. Gambia, decided by the Economic Community of West African States Court (ECOWAS), in which it was held that the impunity in the investigation of crimes against journalists not only denied their right to practice their profession but also their right to freedom of expression.
The Court emphasized that freedom of expression is a “cornerstone for the existence of democratic societies and that granting a secure environment for journalism makes access to information easier for citizens.” [para. 57] It also noted that the absence of this freedom “weakens the democratic system and breaks down pluralism and tolerance” and renders ineffective the “mechanisms of oversight and the ability of citizens to report problems.” [para. 57]
Furthermore, The IACtHR considered that transparency in the exercise of power is necessary for an effective fight against corruption and that the press plays a crucial role in that regard. The Court also highlighted the relationship between transparency and democracy—which is clearly reflected in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Hence, the Court recognized that the protection of the press, as guardians of the general interest, is a matter of public importance and a key factor in the survival of the democratic system.
Based on this analysis, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights reached the conclusion that the state of Paraguay indeed breached Articles 4.1 and 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, along with Article 1.1. According to the Court, the state failed to protect Mr. Leguizamón Zaván and prevent his death and it failed to guarantee his right to life and freedom of thought and expression. Additionally, the IACtHR also considered that the State of Paraguay violated not only the individual dimension of the right to freedom but also its collective dimension.
The Court also considered that the state of Paraguay further violated the right to judicial guarantees (ACHR, art. 8.1) and right to judicial protection (ACHR, art. 25.1) regarding the widow and children of Mr. Leguizamón Zaván. Additionally, the Court found that the state violated the right to personal integrity of the aforementioned people.
Subsequently, the Court ordered Paraguay to set up a working group or commission to “determine the circumstances of the murder of Mr Leguizamón Zaván” [para. 97] to overcome the legal obstacle of not being able to carry out criminal proceedings against the Brazilian citizens who allegedly participated in the crime, due to the impossibility of extraditing them.
In particular, the working group was ordered to investigate the context of Leguizamon’s murder, as well as other murders of journalists in Paraguay that happened afterward, and the failures in the criminal proceedings involving the murder of Mr. Leguizamón Zaván.
The Court also ordered the state to hold a public ceremony to recognize its international responsibility, as requested by the applicants. Additionally, the state was ordered to publish the official summary of the decision in Paraguay´s official journal, in a major news outlet with nationwide circulation, and on governmental websites.
Furthermore, the Court issued an order to reinstate the national “Santiago Leguizamón” journalism award and to adopt whatever measures are necessary to preserve the places set aside in honor of the memory of Mr. Leguizamón Zaván.
As a guarantee of non-recurrence, the IACtHR ordered the state to adopt suitable measures to strengthen the work of the Panel for the Safety of Journalists in Paraguay and to create a fund to pay for programs targeting prevention, protection, and assistance to journalists who are victims of violence. The Court also ordered the state to promote the enactment of a draft bill on freedom of expression and protection of journalists, press workers, and human rights defenders. Moreover, the state was ordered to pay compensation for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages and to cover legal expenses—a sum that amounted to USD 350.000.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an exemplary ruling that protects freedom of expression against one of the most extreme and atrocious attacks: murder and violence against journalists. The Court not only reinforced the standards of freedom of expression in the face of tragic and extreme events such as the crime committed against Mr. Leguizamón Zaván, but also ordered reparations and non-repetition measures that are promising for the prevention of these abhorrent crimes which annihilate freedom of expression, the right to information and that affect public oversight and chill expression on matters of public interest.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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