What do you know about freedom of expression in Paraguay?

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.”

The Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (Paraguayan Journalists Union, SPP) has noted that the border between Paraguay and Argentina also represents a problematic area for those exercising journalism in the country, along with other zones where organised crime groups have taken control, both formally and informally. According to the SPP, these groups are also constantly vying for territorial control, resulting in an increasingly dangerous situation for journalists.

The SPP’s deputy secretary general, Santiago Ortiz, recalls a critical time 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 in comparison with the horrible statistics for attacks on the press in other countries in the region, such as Colombia or Mexico.

At that time SPP, together with the IFEX-ALC network, organised a campaign to raise awareness of the Paraguayan situation at the international level. 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 the UPR process, the government of Paraguay received nine recommendations regarding freedom of expression and information. Important steps forward which were 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 regarding freedom of expression in the country since the 2016 UPR. He sees an overall “broad environment of freedom of expression and press freedom in the country”, backed by specific and clear constitutional norms. This environment 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 are ongoing. 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 aggressive actions 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 like