Freedom of Expression: Catalina Botero

By Cruz, Martha | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Expression: Catalina Botero


Cruz, Martha, Americas (English Edition)


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Botero has been Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Expression at the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2008. Her passion for human rights began in politics when she was a student leader in the "Septima Papeleta" (Seventh Ballot) Movement, which called for the convocation of a National Constituent Assembly in Colombia in 1991.

But Botero has always been very clear that she didn't want a future in the world of polities. Instead, she chose the route of the courts, completing a doctorate at the Center for Constitutional Studies in Madrid. She then worked her way up to the position of auxiliary magistrate in the Constitutional Court of her country.

Botero works to protect freedom of speech in the hemisphere, reviewing specific cases in which she might have to intervene on behalf of journalists who are in danger of losing their right to report. With the impeccable Castilian Spanish that Colombians are known for, she speaks about freedom of the press in the Americas:

* What are your main concerns regarding freedom of expression in the Americas?

The continent has made a lot of progress since the military dictatorships of the 1970s. Democratic openness and new constitutions in many countries have strengthened democracy and, with it, the freedom of expression. The inter-American system is acting vigorously, and people are more aware of their rights.

But we have to face two serious challenges with great rigor and seriousness. The first is the threat that organized crime represents for journalists. The second is the contempt that some governments are showing for the role of the press.

* Tell us about how organized crime is threatening journalists. How does this play out?

More than 260 journalists have been murdered during the first eleven years of this century in Latin America. The mafia has an agenda for the media and when the press doesn't adapt to it, very serious problems can emerge. We are seeing this in places like northern Mexico, Brazil, and in some of the countries of Central America.

But the states also have obligations in these matters, and they can only fulfill them to the extent they recognize they have a problem with organized crime and drug trafficking and they create a public security policy that protects people who are taking extraordinary risks and fulfilling an exceptional role. By killing journalists, mafias are trying to freeze situations in place. They are trying to keep anyone from challenging the power and the impunity they currently enjoy.

The media is the best ally of justice. When a journalist is killed, it doesn't just affect that person. It keeps a whole community from having access to information that is crucial for exercising political and social control.

* What are the obligations of a state here?

The first obligation is preventative. Security forces can't identify the press as their enemy when they make critical reports. They should be trained on the freedom of expression, and the public discourse of governments should legitimate critical and alternative press instead of stigmatizing it.

The second obligation is to protect. States should be efficient in assessing whether a journalist is at risk and in implementing effective protection measures. This costs a lot of money, but it is very important, since democratic debate and practice can be cut off if the press is not free and active. But protection measures and policies need to be worked out with the journalists themselves. Journalists who cover security issues can't be accompanied by bodyguards all the time, or they would never be able to keep their sources confidential and do their work effectively.

The last obligation is that of securing justice. The great majority of crimes committed against journalists have remained in impunity, and those that haven't have ended with laughable judgments that only punish the material authors of the crime. …

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