Defamation / Reputation, Digital Rights, Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
Andrea Lilian Uribe Peña v. Ministry of Labour and Carlos Alberto Merchán Espíndola
Closed Expands Expression
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The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) held that Colombia violated Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) when military officers assaulted a journalist who was covering an anti-government demonstration. The court wrote that Article 13 encompasses both an individual right to seek and impart information, including its mass dissemination, and a collective social right to receive information provided by others.
Further the court found that the attack was meant to silence the journalist which could have a chilling effect on other journalists. Because the state also failed to protect and investigate the threats and harassment suffered by his family, their rights to humane treatment, protection of their honor and dignity, right to freedom of movement and residence, and right to judicial protection, among others, were violated.
In 1996, Luis Gonzalo Vélez Restrepo, cameraman for a national news network who was covering a protest against the government, was physically assaulted by military officials in charge of controlling the march, and had to be sent to the hospital. Following that incident, the journalist and his family started receiving death threats and were subject to harassment, including an attemped kidnapping of Vélez Restrepo. Following the first incident, there was an internal military investigation leading to disciplinary measures against the officers, and a criminal military investigation was started, but the file was later misplaced. In regards to the harassment and threats, no proper investigation was conducted and no culprits were charged.
Vélez Restrepo finally brought his case against Colombia before the IACtHR, claiming that the State had violated ACHR Articles 1 (obligation to respect rights), 4 (right to life), 5 (right to humane treatment), 8 (right to fair trial), 13 (right to freedom of thought and expression), 11 (protection of honour and dignity), 17 (rights of the family), 19 (rights of the child), 22 (right to freedom of movement and residence), and 25 (right to judicial protection).
Regarding the right to freedom of thought and expression, ACHR Article 13, the Court reiterated its understanding that the right has two dimensions, an individual and a social one. The first dimension contains the right to seek and impart information, including its mass dissemination. The social dimension pertains to the collective right of receiving the information provided by others. The Court further expressed that the exercise of the journalistic profession cannot be separated from the right to freedom of expression. The Court understood that, being that Vélez Restrepo was assaulted by military officials whilst conducting his profession, and the purpose of the assault was to preclude him from further recording the events and delivering the contents already obtained, that the assault violated his right to freedom of expression, particularly because the information was of public interest. The Court further believed that the aggression against Vélez Restrepo would have a negative impact on other journalists who would otherwise consider covering similar situations, once again violating the right to freedom of expression and the right to receive information.
The Court also understood that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression requires conditions and social practices that favor it. The lack of protection and of a proper investigation by the government failed to provide the desirable conditions. Because it is the government’s duty to do so, and the government knew of the ongoing threats and harassment at the time, this also constituted a violation by the State of Columbia of Articles 5 (humane treatment) and 13 (freedom of expression) of the ACHR.
The Court further indicated that states have the obligation to adopt special measures of prevention and protection of journalists that are subject to special risks because of their profession. The Court understood that because the state failed to protect and investigate the threats and harassment suffered by the family, they had to seek asylum in the U.S. These failures by the state violated the family’s right to freedom of movement and residence under ACHR Article 22. This resulted in the separation of the family for a significant period of time and the material affective and psychological impact on the children’s lives, a violation of the rights of the family and the child. ACHR Articles 17, 19. Only conducting a trial by a military tribunal on human rights violations constituted a violation of the right to a fair trial. ACHR Article 8. The lack of a proper investigation on the occurrences amounted to a violation by the state of the right to a fair trial and judicial protection. ACHR Articles 8, 25. Lastly, because there had not been a serious threat to Vélez Restrepo and his family’s lives, no violation of ACHR Article 4 had occurred.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The case stands for journalists’ freedom to express themselves without retribution from the government for that speech.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The decision is issued by the IACtHR, whose judgments Colombia is obliged to respect.
Not accepted by the court.
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