IFEX-exclusive interview with IACHR Special Rapporteur Pedro Vaca Villarreal– Part 1

IFEX asked journalist Vanina Berghella to speak with IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Pedro Vaca Villarreal, to delve into the important challenges he faces in his newly-appointed position, review his background in the defense of freedom of expression, and discuss the priority issues on the Rapporteur Office’s agenda.

Pedro Vaca Villarreal, the new Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), has an extensive résumé and vast expertise. Vaca is renowned in Colombia for his work as a lawyer in the defense of freedom of expression, and he holds a Specialization Degree in Constitutional Law and a Master’s Degree in Law from the National University of Colombia. He was a trial attorney in lawsuits against freedom of the press violations and has provided training for judges in the fight against impunity.

During the last decade, Vaca also headed Colombia’s Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP). From there he worked with other global organisations, including the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), as a member of its Global Council, and the NGO Freedom House, as a consultant for the freedom of the press chapter.

In the 45-minute video interview, recorded just a few weeks after Vaca was named to the role, journalist Vanina Berghella asks him about a wide range of issues and priorities for the Americas region – everything from the impact of COVID-19 on the media and the digital divide to gendered attacks on freedom of expression, journalist safety, and the responsibilities of digital platforms at a time when hate speech and misinformation are on the rise.

Watch the full interview here:

Transcription: Part One

“What we do over the next three years will have a tremendous impact on future generations in terms of freedom of expression.”

Vanina Berghella: Let’s talk about the challenges you have ahead of you in this new position. My first question might be a bit personal, but it is professional as well: What motivated you to apply for this position? 

Pedro José Vaca Villarreal: I have devoted practically all my professional life to freedom of the press, [living] in a country that combines all the factors of censorship, and on different scales. So it became something of a religious mission to me. Having been on the receiving end of the inter-American system, I realized first-hand that what that office does, and what the rapporteurship of freedom of expression does, can have a tremendous impact on the lives of people and journalists. I have used the standards of the inter-American system for many, many years, applying them, or at least promoting their application, in Colombia, in particular, but also, through various networks, in other countries of the region. 

Also, I think it is a matter of timing. I feel ready to take on the task now, after almost ten years of being uninterruptedly at the service of freedom of expression in Colombia, of having had the privilege of heading the Freedom of the Press Foundation (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, or FLIP), thanks to the generosity of the organisation, which I am convinced was able to make a decisive contribution, in spite of the difficulties, and advance the agenda in certain ways; at least in terms of having strong institutions to address the challenges from now on. 

And I believe that the rapporteurship is a key office. It is an office that can have a transformative projection if it is proactive, if it makes an effort to read the issues, if it facilitates conversations and if it is available to those who suffer censorship on the continent. What we do over the next three years – the duration of the mandate – will have a tremendous impact in future generations in terms of freedom of expression. 

Fortunately, in the selection process, we saw a number of very worthy candidates, both men and women, and at a certain point in the process I was reassured by that. Because I knew whoever was ultimately chosen would not be a passive person. Now, as I am the one who has been entrusted with this mandate and I have received a vote of confidence from the commissioners, I will take on the task with great enthusiasm, with great responsibility, and above all with great commitment. Because, coming from where I come from makes me reaffirm and redouble my commitment with freedom of expression.

VB: You just mentioned FLIP, which is part of your previous work and your professional background, and I add to that the executive positions you have held at IFEX. Do you think those previous roles have prepared you for your new position in the Office of the Rapporteur?

PJVV: Without a doubt. And I would like to start with FLIP, which is a local organization, with a local mandate. But it is also kind of unique, because while it is independent and denounces attacks and can in a certain way confront the authorities when the situation calls for it, it also has a collaborative approach in many senses. And I think that is an articulating role that the special rapporteurship must have – it must act like a hinge. That entails not only being available to face attacks and to fight impunity in crimes against journalists, but also – because ultimately freedom of expression is a right that must be guaranteed by states – it has to be available to contribute to help states improve in that sense. It is a role that I feel I have the experience for.

The second role has more to do with the network of freedom of expression in the region and globally, and there is something there that is not very well-known, unless you are part of that community, and that is that it is a very fraternal community. It is a community in which the various meetings, the various discussions, give you a sense of region, they allow you to have a broader perspective. It is very easy to get lost in the realities of each country, or rather close yourself to them. And networks like IFEX make it easier to have a broader picture and identify common patterns or problems that are emerging or initiatives that worked in some countries and can be replicated in others. And I think that builds an enormously collaborative community and one that is enormously committed to freedom of expression in the continent. I am convinced that censorship is not worse in the continent because such a community exists.

Immediate priorities

VB: Speaking of that regional view and of having a broader perspective, our region has enormous challenges and great particularities. There are specific aspects that must be addressed, which obviously go from extreme violence against journalists and freedom of expression activists to aspects that have more to do with legal or judicial persecution that may be used to cover up harassment. There are also aspects concerning digital rights and the digital divide that need to be addressed. There is much work and many aspects. Tell us what your agenda is. What are your priorities once you take office?

PJVV: The first thing is that I am aware that I am joining an office that has seen fantastic people before me. And that is a good thing, because the work done by the outgoing rapporteur and those before him has progressively strengthened the office. 

There are standards for many of the issues you mentioned: violence against journalists, judicial harassment, issues regarding official advertising, digital rights. At least in the issues of violence and impunity, which are core points of the agenda, we have to admit frankly that there has been little progress in reversing trends. And this is something that the previous rapporteurs have identified as a great frustration. We have many freedom of expression standards concerned with the prohibition of violence, and we can recite them all, but we cannot name many examples of countries and states that have overcome extreme violence phenomena. That is without a doubt a central element of the mandate. 

There are also standards that still need to be developed. And I would say we need to develop standards from two angles, basically. Because these issues also intersect. The first has to do with exclusion. We are a profoundly exclusionary region, with respect to Black people, the LGBTQI+ community, and women. There are a number of cultural patterns of discrimination that also intersect with freedom of expression. So, to the extent that there is discrimination, the voices that are discriminated against or the social sectors that are excluded face more obstacles in raising their opinions and their points of view in the public debate. And I think that is also something that is being shouted in the streets across the continent.

VB: Let us look specifically at some of these aspects, because it is interesting to explore certain concrete issues. You mentioned, for example, vulnerable groups, like the LGBTQI+ community and Black people, which now, especially in the northern part of our continent – in the United States, specifically – is an issue that has become more visible. 

However, I do not want to forget about indigenous and rural communities, particularly in Central America and the Andean countries where their voice is also greatly suppressed. Can you tell us what strategies you think can be implemented in addition to what is already being done to support these communities and give them visibility? 

PJVV: I think there are three parallel lines of work that can be advanced. It all depends on whether the office has the capacity to implement these ideas, but I do hope we can do it.

The first is ensuring, as far as possible, that states recognise certain discrimination phenomena. This is important because there are sectors and public leaderships that deny that some of these discriminations exist. It is not enough for the standard to be recognised and for states to sign it. The authorities have to acknowledge that there are phenomena of discrimination within their states. It may seem simply a matter of political will, but I think there are several countries where it may be particularly sensitive. 

VB: In some cases, it may even be because of a certain cultural or social view that naturalises some of these aspects. I want to mention, in particular, the issue of violence against women, the naturalising of harassment and abuse on social media; viewing it as something natural.

PJVV: Or addressing it as something so complex that it becomes daunting and paralyses. Public authorities, states, and representatives of the states have the duty to recognise – if they have them, but I would venture that they all do – that they have such phenomena of discrimination and exclusion of various groups of people, as you described very accurately.

The second thing is that there is a kind of status quo: there are actors that are already established, and voices that are already being heard. The mainstream media is perhaps the clearest example. They already have a voice. I think that in these spaces we need to promote awareness-raising efforts with respect to such discriminations. It is important for newsrooms to be familiar with the standards concerning indigenous peoples, and that they implement, as much as possible, self-regulating practices that will ensure that their powerful voices do not contribute to heighten the discrimination that exists against Black people, for example. What I mean with this is that there are already certain voices that are not excluded and which are heard, and those voices can be part of the fight against discrimination and exclusion.

A third point is agency. For example, in the case of sexual violence against women journalists: this is an issue that could very well be covered by a newsroom formed solely by men. And they could probably produce a very good report. But I think there is an element of sensitivity and identity that they can very easily miss. So I think that in newsrooms it is also important for excluded voices to have their own agency. Having state and institutional recognition is not enough. Neither is it enough for actors who already have a voice in the public space to be sensitive to the struggle against discrimination. Those discriminated voices have to have their own agency, their presence in the public space must be furthered. 

I doubt this will be achieved in the next three years, which is the length of my mandate, but I hope that I and the office can contribute something toward having more LGBTI+ media, more media with greater Black presence and engaging Black managers and leaders, and greater power for women within the media. 

VB: From your role as rapporteur, do you imagine that your work will involve coordinating the efforts of these actors? What often happens is that the efforts of the media, civil society associations, and activist groups are conducted independently from each other, and with respect to the state. What is perhaps lacking is somebody to help coordinate those efforts, to engage these actors in a dialogue.

PJVV: The rapporteurship has to talk with all the actors in the region who are involved in the issue. It is very important to have the necessary conditions to enable reflection within each of these sectors. We can read all the terms of references of social media and recite all the aspects that may be controversial; we can call on all legislators, the judiciary, and the executive branch to consider how these issues can be approached; and we can engage every NGO. But if the platforms are not engaged, then that conversation is incomplete. 

The digital ecosystem: rights and regulations

VB: What is the responsibility of the digital platforms or their part in this conversation? And not just with respect to what we mentioned – the issue of harassment or attacks in the digital space – but also with respect to what happens at the level of regulations. The digital space today seems like a Roman coliseum, where we are all present and interacting, but where a struggle or competition is visible, with regulations or demands for regulations, on the one hand, clashing with the right to freedom of expression, on the other. And how do we start to make that conversation a little bit more coordinated?  

PJVV: I see it as having a base and three elements, three red lines, almost like a triangle. The base is that what we have now is not enough to address the challenges of freedom of expression online. There are things to be done there. The question is, what should we do? How far should we go? What I am trying to describe with this conceptual triangle is that nothing that is done should incur in regulatory excesses. That is the first element. 

The second element is that nothing that is done should be intuitive. Intuition is not a good counsellor in these issues, and anyone who thinks they have come up with a good idea to solve this whole problem is most likely wrong. 

And the third element in the triangle is that we cannot have blind faith in self-regulation. So, neither intuition nor regulatory excesses nor blind faith in self-regulation, but at the same time recognising that what we currently have is not enough to address the challenges posed by freedom of expression online.

VB: What role does the field of education play? There has been much talk about this. Because our generation has had to deal with this as a generation that comes from a different realm and that has had to join the digital realm, but we can also start thinking about the work we can do with the digital native generations and the coming generations. Can we also work from the field of education? 

PJVV: A year ago there was a discussion about digital literacy and it seemed that the initiatives that were being developed on the subject of digital literacy required on-site spaces, required gathering people. All the digital literacy projects that I got to see in several places involved bringing people together physically. The paradox is that today there is no educational activity that is not relying on a digital environment. The pandemic has forced everything that has to do with education to be necessarily implemented through digital platforms. That is, where there is education, because what is happening is that those who are not connected are not receiving education. 

And there I fully agree that we have to move forward in developing skills for consuming content on line. I think this is a very delicate issue, but at the same time it is a very important one. And I think that in this moment the region is going through, this is something we cannot skirt. Several things are happening at the same time. The media, which we have entrusted – at least theoretically – with providing us with information that is of public interest, truthful, contrasted, and relevant, is increasingly less capable of doing so. And that means that it is less and less able to provide content that meets those standards of quality. This happens at the same time that citizens and people who are connected consume online content like never before. Content that is democratically relevant. This is also coupled with the economic crisis that affects the media.

Since it is increasingly difficult to produce valuable or democratically relevant content, or content that at least meets journalistic standards, then something else is being consumed. What are mostly consumed are other kinds of content, content that does not have those standards. 

That is not to say that it is wrong to consume that content. But if we do not progress in education, we might start having distracted societies, encapsulated societies, societies in which there could be important things happening beyond the front door of any home and its dwellers are totally unaware of it because they are not being told about it. Or there may even be relevant information being produced, but nobody is receiving it or can consume it because it gets lost in all the noise. There is a colleague here in Colombia who has a saying I love, which is: “The best journalism is happening right now.”

VB: You mentioned several aspects that I would like you to elaborate a bit on, because we have been hit by this pandemic, which is something we never imagined could happen, much less globally. It is a situation that we are all experiencing simultaneously, and which, in the case of the region, began at the same time. In this sense, all those citizens who could were forced to go digital. And what this has laid bare is, precisely, the differences and the gaps that exist. What can we do to reduce these gaps? Because this has an enormous impact on people’s chances of expressing themselves.

PJVV: I think that all the countries in the region share two characteristics. The first is that the distances separating the urban from the rural are dramatic, not only in terms of connectivity, but in public services, in the provision of the right to healthcare, quality education, infrastructure. That is, I think that with the exception of some large countries and economic powers, the vast majority of countries are tremendously behind in providing and giving access to various services, including connectivity. And I also believe that every country had a plan. A plan to be met in 20 or 30 years, under which they would move progressively toward the goal of connectivity. I think those plans need to be stepped up. That is something that I think, in the course of my mandate as rapporteur, we should be able to insist on. That is, if today any of the countries of the region says, “We have a digital divide of X%,” that is something that should be reduced considerably over the coming years. Regardless of whether there were medium or long-term plans or not. Why? Precisely because of what you say. Today, when you have a lot of people confined or with restrictions limiting a broad mobility, citizenship and being a citizen is enabled to a great extent through connectivity. And I would venture to say that if today there is a deliberate digital gap, then that amounts to a denial of civil rights.

VB: Not investing in and not striving toward that in a proactive, planned, and steady way is already a curtailment of freedom of expression. We also touched briefly on another aspect earlier, which I would like to look at more closely now. And that is that as more and more people are in the digital space, we are seeing an increase in state monitoring or cyber-patrolling of social media. Do you think the standards that we have right now are prepared for this challenge? Do we need to make some adjustments? 

PJVV: I think that in digital environments, and in similar settings, there are certain actors who have a kind of inequality in terms of power and information with respect to others. And that is heightened in the digital ecosystem. The capacity or the information available to a company that feeds the internet or connects the internet is completely different from the volume of information that someone who connects to the internet or goes on the internet has. There we can identify as many layers as there are actors. 

And what we have is a kind of ‘candy’ in the current digital environment. That ‘candy’ is user data. It is like a permanent holy grail that is everywhere, that is being continuously produced. Most of the time, you surrender your data without knowing what that entails. And I think that is where that intersection is, in balancing that power, which does not mean doing away with that power. I think it is hard for that power to disappear. But I believe that power needs to be more scrutable, it needs to be more accountable. It has to be a power that is also transparent, so that users, the different citizens who contribute to this data economy, can at least be aware of what they are doing. 

The control of data has economic impacts, political impacts, because whoever handles the highest amount of information, of data, and whoever does so in the greatest volumes, will be in control of a key aspect in this matter: scale. The use of that power with the purpose of manipulating a voter’s freedom, or to deceive in order to benefit a corporation or a private company, poses many, many risks. 

I think that if in the next three years, which is the duration of the mandate I have been given, we are able to progress in raising awareness that this is happening, then I would be satisfied with my work. Because I think there are very interesting conversations being had in digital environments, but which are still limited to layers of society that handle a certain level of sophisticated information – these important conversations are more distant and less accessible for citizens who, with their cellular devices, are providing that ‘candy’.

VB: Your answer prompts me to talk about the right of access to information. Our region has been working for many years on this, in particular, drafting legislation, and there are only a few countries that do not have a law in this sense. That is an important element for citizens, and not just professional journalists, so that they can use this kind of tools and move forward in the search for information, not only to know about certain aspects and matters of how the state is run, but also how their own data is handled, the data that they are leaving in the digital ecosystem.

PJVV: If there was ever a time to talk about access to information, this is it. It is vital to have legal frameworks for accessing public information. But such legal frameworks alone are not enough. Today we have several countries in the region where states of emergency or exceptional measures have been declared or are in place, and naturally such measures give executive branches extraordinary powers that allow them to make purchases and decisions more easily. All of this is very justified in the context of the pandemic, but if that is not accompanied by transparency, if it is not accompanied by access to information, if it is not accompanied by making those urgent actions visible to the public, then I think the risks of corruption are enormous. 

Journalists need to access public information to report properly, meeting journalistic quality standards. But I feel that there is currently a kind of culture of secrecy still in place. We have to keep working against that culture of secrecy. We need to defeat it, because today the capacity for storing information, for systematizing information is much greater.

VB: Yes, it is increasingly greater, and technology has reduced the obstacles in that sense.

PJVV: Transparency is easy, if the will exists. Never before has transparency as an act of political will been put to the test so much. Because with very few resources you can have a transparency portal conveying some key aspects in real time. And this has to do with the exercise of rights. We are not just talking about connectivity to get people to be constantly connected; it is about the quality of the information that is provided, so that people can, for example, access a healthcare route for someone infected with coronavirus.

(Click here for Part 2)

The post IFEX-exclusive interview with IACHR Special Rapporteur Pedro Vaca Villarreal– Part 1 appeared first on IFEX.



Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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