Free Speech Advocate Seeks New Path to Goals

By Nora Boustany
Friday, November 25, 2005

E duardo A. Bertoni , the outgoing special rapporteur for freedom of expression in the Americas, was frustrated and infuriated by reports in May that several Colombian journalists had received funeral floral arrangements on the same day, a foreboding death announcement of sorts.

One of the journalists was Hollman Morris , a close friend of Bertoni's who covers the country's guerrilla war and drug trafficking for an independent television station. His wife was home alone when the flowers arrived.

Daniel Coronell , a columnist for the weekly news magazine Semana, also received a macabre flower-gram. Two weeks later, he left Colombia for the United States.

Thirty journalists were killed in Colombia from February 1998 through August 2005. Investigations into the deaths have been delayed by procedural issues, and few perpetrators have been sentenced.

"In Colombia, we spoke to journalists who openly said they have mortgaged their independence," said Bertoni, an Argentine lawyer who took up his post at the Organization of American States two years ago. "While some trends are worrisome, this has only pushed me to try harder."

Bertoni will leave his job next month for a one-year fellowship at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

"Through my experience, I have understood that the law is important but not the only way to produce change. There is a lot to learn about public policy and international relations as well," Bertoni said, explaining why he is quitting.

Bertoni feels a sense of accomplishment in having influenced legislation and helped to create a climate in the region that is somewhat freer of "judicial harassment." But he says he also believes in the need to explore other avenues to reach certain goals. Freedom of expression is still fraught with restrictions in the Americas.

"When I took this position, I had some objectives. Many, not all, have been accomplished," he said. "When you are in a bureaucratic function such as this one, it is good to have benchmark goals. And now I feel it is good to move to another place for different answers."

This summer, Bertoni submitted a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights documenting a program run by the Colombian government to protect journalists. The report said hundreds of journalists had benefited from the program but that it needed more political support and a larger budget.

"We have been trying to encourage the government in places like Colombia to protect journalists and to investigate cases that have occurred," he said.

The situation is also dangerous along Mexico's northern border, where four journalists investigating drug trafficking and corruption were recently killed, he said. Journalists in Brazil have also been threatened and in some cases killed. He rated Cuba the worst in the region for ensuring freedom of expression but also said some of the most severe cases of suppression of information he had dealt with were in Haiti.

But there has been good news in Panama and Honduras, where flawed legislation has been repealed.

Some countries have also made advances in allowing public access to information, creating local equivalents of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. "When I started working on this in 2002, there were only four or five countries which had that kind of access to public information, mainly Canada, the United States, Colombia and Trinidad," Bertoni said. Since then, more than half a dozen countries have been added to the list, including Mexico, Panama, Peru and Jamaica. Honduras, Guatemala, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile are discussing similar laws in their parliaments, he added.

"Civil society is responsible for these new laws. All we did was advocate for it and give support while the process was underway," he said.

"We have sent to the Inter-American Court of the Organization of American States cases that ended with decisions saying criminal defamation laws in Costa Rica and Paraguay have been used against journalists," Bertoni said.

For example, a Costa Rican journalist, Mauricio Herrera Ulloa , reprinted a report about a Costa Rican official that had been published in European newspapers. Herrera was convicted of libel-related offenses in 1999 and fined, and Costa Rica's Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

"The case came to the commission, and we determined that Costa Rica had violated the American Convention of Human Rights, so the Inter-American Court ordered Costa Rica to reverse the decision of the Supreme Court," Bertoni said.

"I am not Superman. It would be impossible to do anything without a political will or without help from civil society. But I am very happy to have been part of this process. I had been fighting criminal defamation laws in my country, Argentina, for years," he said. "It is time to move on. . . . I want to work on the same issues in other positions. It is time to reorganize and to think of new strategies."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company