On 5 May, Paraguay will be evaluated within the third cycle of the UPR. IFEX member in Paraguay SPP and the IFEX-ALC network have proposed recommendations regarding freedom of expression in the country. Hear what Santiago Ortiz, José María Costa, Dante Leguizamón, and Flavia Borja have to say about the progress to date, and the potential for change.
This is a translation of the original article.
A city divided by a border. In Paraguay its name is Pedro Juan Caballero, while in Brazil, it’s Ponta Porã. Violence is a constant in this city located in the middle of South America, far from the larger urban centers. The area is known for its pervasive organised crime, particularly the presence of numerous drug trafficking groups. The Primer Comando de la Capital (First Capital Command, PCC) is one such group, and assassinations, corruption and torture are among the crimes reported on a daily basis in the region.
Brazilian journalist Leo Veras lived in Pedro Juan Caballero and reported on the situation in the area. On 12 February 2020, hitmen entered Veras’s home and shot him twelve times as he was preparing to have dinner with his family. Veras was not the first journalist to be assassinated in Pedro Juan Caballero.
In its 2017 report titled ‘Silenced Zones’, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression characterised the situation in the area of Paraguay’s border with Brazil as highly dangerous for those who exercise journalism. In addition, the report stated that “with the advancement of so-called ‘narcopolitics’, freedom of expression has been affected insofar as journalists face serious difficulties when they try to report on specific unlawful activities being conducted in their communities and the institutions – according to the journalists themselves – do not function as they should to protect them.”
IFEX member the Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (Paraguayan Journalists Union, SPP) has noted that the border between Paraguay and Argentina is also a problematic area for those exercising journalism in the country, along with other zones where organised crime groups have taken control, whether formally or informally. According to the SPP, these groups constantly compete for territorial control, which contributes to an increasingly dangerous situation for journalists.
The SPP’s deputy secretary general, Santiago Ortiz, recalls when violence against the press in Paraguay peaked, in 2015. According to Ortiz, the situation received little attention outside of the country. Paraguay was never seen as a ‘hotspot’, especially when compared with the horrific statistics for attacks on the press in other countries in the region, such as Colombia or Mexico.
At that time, SPP, along with the IFEX-ALC network, organised a campaign to raise awareness at the international level about the Paraguayan situation. The measures taken included sending a report to and carrying out various activities with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. In 2016, Paraguay was scheduled to be examined during the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). (Within the UPR process, states are evaluated – by other states – regarding the human rights situation in their territory.)
Ortiz believes the campaign was a success. As a result of that process, the government of Paraguay was given nine recommendations regarding freedom of expression and information. Important steps forward, driven by the campaign, have taken place since 2016, including: the development of a protocol for journalist security and police action in areas of risk; the creation of a Roundtable for Journalist Security as the operational body for this protocol; and the initiation of discussions regarding a law on journalist security. For Ortiz, perhaps the most important achievement was “the awareness-raising that took place among citizens regarding the importance of guaranteeing protections and security for journalists, in order to ensure the ability to exercise freedom of expression for all.”
Journalist and lawyer José María Costa is the director of Transparency and Access to Information at the Supreme Court of Justice and the coordinator of the Roundtable for Journalist Security in Paraguay. He also notes the advances that have taken place. He sees an overall “broad environment of freedom of expression and press freedom in the country”, backed by specific and clear constitutional norms. This includes the existence and expansion of media outlets – with an increasing number of digital media and networks in particular – along with the creation of the Roundtable for Journalist Security, and the approval and entry into effect of the Law on Access to Public Information and Government Transparency (Ley Nº 5282/14).
Costa notes, however, that there have also been setbacks, calling attention, for example, to the growing issue of media concentration: “At this time, in practice, the greatest portion of the media, with the largest audiences and most presence on the social scene, is concentrated in just four large chains or networks.” Costa also highlights the precarious nature of journalism as an occupation: “With the emergence of multiplatform formats, journalists are forced to expand the scope of their services within the same media companies, contributing to greater job stress and deteriorating work conditions, which also then affects the quality of the content they produce.”
Unfortunately, despite the advances that have been outlined, there is still much to be done. Attacks on journalists continue. In addition to Leo Veras, Eduardo González, a journalist in Carmen del Paraná, died after being severely beaten. He was found at the side of the Graneros del Sur highway in early March 2016. Between 2016 and 2019, numerous cases of attacks and other aggressions against journalists were reported, including threats linked to their work, physical attacks, and harassment involving cyberbullying, stigmatisation, judicial persecution, and sexual violence.
Costa says that “a few months ago there were reports of identity theft and hacking of the telephones of two journalists who carried out investigations into corruption. Their data was compromised, and likely their sources as well.” These types of cyber-attacks constitute a new and escalating form of violence against journalists.
Attacks of this nature do not affect everyone in the same way or to the same degree. In general, female journalists are more commonly subjected to cyber harassment, cyber-attacks and digital security breaches. As a result, female journalists suffer both for exercising their right to freedom of expression and for their gender. An example is the case of journalist Noelia Díaz Esquivel, who received death threats via social media after publicly referring to a femicide that took place in the capital, Asunción.
Journalist Flavia Borja asserts that “female journalists who focus on gender, focus on rights, focus on feminism, are subjected to more attacks.” In addition, according to Borja, mechanisms and protocols that would ensure safe reporting of the harassment that takes place within newsrooms are lacking. Media outlets also fail to implement cyber security protocols for their journalists. When threats or violence against female journalists take place, “they simply face the situation alone.”
Dante Leguizamón, a human rights defender and former member of the National Commission against Torture, notes that impunity continues to be a problem that Paraguay has been unable to solve, both in cases involving female journalists as well as in other attacks. Of the 19 journalist assassinations that have taken place since 1991, only the cases of Samuel Román and Pablo Medina have been solved, with the perpetrators being sentenced. In the case of Salvador Medina, the hit man was convicted, but not the masterminds behind the crime.
Santiago Leguizamón, Dante’s father, was assassinated in 1991. He was ambushed and shot 21 times in Pedro Juan Caballero. Since then, Journalist’s Day has been commemorated on 26 April in Paraguay. In August 2020, the IACHR found that the Paraguayan state was responsible for the lack of protection and ongoing impunity in the case. This took place 30 years after the assassination, and 13 years after the IACHR process initiated.
That IACHR finding is an example of the important impact international human rights bodies can have in cases involving systematic violations at the national level. This is one of the reasons behind the SPP’s decision to once again present a report on the Paraguayan freedom of expression situation to the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Paraguay will be evaluated in the third cycle of the UPR on 5 May. SPP and the IFEX-ALC network have proposed a series of recommendations aimed at solving the problems that have been highlighted, in the hope that the evaluating states will adopt these recommendations and pass them on to the Paraguayan state. The recommendations cover issues such as combatting impunity and violence against journalists, as well as concerns regarding censorship, mass dismissals, community radio stations, the rights of female journalists and media concentration.
Jose Maria Costa believes that an evaluation by international organisations “can contribute to addressing chronic problems and seeking solutions in the country.” And Santiago Ortiz takes this view further, saying, “We hope this will be a wake-up call for the state to guarantee freedom of expression.”
For this to happen, we must all pay close attention. Paraguay’s citizens and the international community should demand immediate action. We must ensure that attacks on freedom of expression in Paraguay are brought to light.