Another Stop Along the Way: Edison Lanza is New Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – by Facundo Franco (La Diaria)

This article was published in Uruguay’s La Diaria on 4 August 2014.


– As Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, Lanza is looking to create standards for media laws.

Edison Lanza is a lawyer and journalist. In recent years he has become civil society’s expert on public access to information, media outlets and regulating journalist activities. He was just nominated as Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. He thinks his nomination provides an opportunity for Uruguay’s civil society to renew its interest in freedom of expression issues. In an interview for this newspaper he discussed challenges to freedom of expression in Latin America and he spoke of the need to create international standards to guide governments in laws concerning media outlets.

– Some say that your nomination is an achievement for Uruguay. Do you agree?

– It’s true that it’s a post with its own autonomy and independence from the states, and that it’s part of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. But it’s also true that seven commissioners proposed by states run the Commission and these commissioners choose the Rapporteur. I think they mostly based their decision on a candidate’s personal trajectory coupled with country of origin.

I think there’s international recognition that Uruguay respects civil and political freedoms, and particularly that of freedom of expression. This situation is recognized across the spectrum of civil society and international organizations. Another factor that seems to have been favorable is that the current government and particularly the president [José] Mujica was outspoken in international settings like UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), the Organization of American States, the OAS (the Organization of American States), and also about humanitarian crises. They took that prominence into account.

If I had come from a country where there are serious problems concerning freedom of expression, then it might have been an element of conflict or irritation, especially since my recent engagements have strong ties to civil society. Along the way I have never watched myself. I mean in the sense that if I disagree with the government I do so openly. When there’s been the opportunity to work together on some policy, or cooperate on a project, we’ve done so together. And always with respect for each other.

– Are there differences in the practice of freedom of expression between the capital of Montevideo and the country’s interior?

– One of the things the Archives and Access to Public Information Center (CAINFO) has been working on is the construction of a tool kit to monitor freedom of expression in Uruguay. There may be a context of mutual respect but it’s also true that the failures to monitor the situation, to receive complaints, and investigations by civil society don’t prevent us from seeing that problems exist.

Based on data collected by colleagues a possible hypothesis might be that the situation outside the capital is worse than in Montevideo.

I say this because of the proximity of politics to the Judicial Branch. The reality is that many journalists who have a radio program outside the capital can do so only because they receive publicly paid official advertising. This situation generates a certain dependency. Access to sources is more complicated than in Montevideo. Multi-employment means that journalists have to work in the press and in a public institution at the same time, something that costs them what remains of their independence. And then there’s the lack of resources. So in that sense the country needs to create public policies to improve the distribution of public advertising. It needs to strengthen community radio stations. These broadcasters are spread throughout rural areas.

– What are the region’s principal challenges to freedom of expression?

– It depends on the region. For example, Uruguay does not have the problem of attacks or violence against journalists. But it does have other problems: like its lack of plurality and diversity.

The continent continues to face structural problems. Foremost is obviously violence against journalists and human rights defenders. The reality is unacceptable: in the last four years around 70 people were killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression about drug trafficking or corruption. It doesn’t just amount to an attack on a person’s life but it’s also a crime against freedom of expression, a way of silencing, or sowing fear, of fostering self-censorship. Impunity is connected to all these crimes. The only way to break the vicious circle of violence is for prosecutors and judges to investigate. And if they find something they must punish the guilty. But in Latin America few prosecutions exist for journalists’ murders.

Another whole chapter has to do with criminalization of expression. Crimes have survived that don’t fit human rights standards. This situation means that journalists or human rights defenders can be tried for crimes against defamation, injury, contempt and all of these have been recently connected to social protest.

There’s also some debate in the region coming from the processes to regulate audiovisual media. It has to do with issues of diversity and pluralism, as ways to enrich communication. Things like community access to the airwaves, the ways of judging media concentration. The Commission’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression (see number 12) states that either public or private monopolies and oligopolies are bad for democracy. We need standards so that countries can have good examples to guide them through situations where concentration exists. There are issues that are coming forcefully to the fore, like freedom of expression on the Internet and a slew of related subjects such as information filtering.

– Could one say that the processes of media regulation in the region are positive?

– In Latin America the debate about regulation started after the industry came into existence. However, regulatory decisions started at the outset in the United States and Europe. An air of deregulation has prevailed in Latin America so even up to now the sector has remained in private and commercial hands. They were very determined about the political system shaping the media landscape that we have had down through to the present. Much of the time the media is concentrated in just a few hands. The editorial lines don’t have much to distinguish between them.

Regulatory reforms arrive at a moment when the industry is already developed and that’s creating resistance or anti-regulatory groups. But not all the media laws under discussion in the region are equal. What’s being discussed in Uruguay, or the law they passed in Argentina, these don’t regulate written media. That’s something that is happening in Ecuador. I am behind norms that regulate electronic media because the state always has to assign the frequency and it’s broadcasting on a massive scale. The regulatory reform proposed in Uruguay is strongly linked to standards in the inter-American System of Human Rights. It doesn’t control content.

In countries like Ecuador they have opted for a different methodology and another type of system. Some norms are being denounced as violating freedom of expression because they enable the state to involve itself in content. It’s yet to be seen what the Rapporteur can do to apply standards to these situations, creating a guide so that states can move forward without riots violations.

– Do you think that the discussions about traditional media are losing out to the discussion about telecommunications?

– I don’t think I agree. What I think is going on is that there is a phenomenon of convergence between the media outlets and the telecom sector. It wasn’t so clear before but now it’s crystal clear. Multiple platforms with the possibility that one same platform will allow broadcast of different content. Or that the Internet and television are becoming hybrids. This combination means that soon we won’t be able to talk about media regulation without talking about telecommunications.

Aspects of this convergence of television and Internet link these two sectors of the economy. But I think that communications outlets must continue to be specific. They broadcast values, symbolism, and ways of being. They are central to cultural production. Thus the issues need to be dealt with separately and together, especially when convergence exists.

[fruitful_sep]Reporter Facundo Franco is a journalist and university lecturer in Montevideo, Uruguay. Follow him on Twitter: @facundofranco. The original article appeared under the title, “Otra escala,” available at:

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a FaceBook page: like it, here.


About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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