HAVANA TIMES – What are the challenges, opportunities and trends today in Latin America when it comes to freedom of speech? The Regional Alliance for Free Expression and Information (Alianza) is an international network that brings together 18 organizations from different countries that study and promote freedom of speech and access to public information. Alianza tries to explain this in its regular report on the situation of this right in Latin America.
The report, inspired by Article 13 of the American Convention of Human Rights, was coordinated this year by one of Alianza’s Argentinian members: the Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ). The document provides an update on the situation in Latin America today in terms of freedom of speech and online and censorship in the virtual space.
According to the report’s findings, the main threats to freedom of speech on the continent include phenomena linked to mass surveillance of citizens online by governments using communications technology, security and control. At the same time, a lack of information and hate speech or restricted access to content on digital platforms is widespread.
The investigation warns that different mass surveillance practices have been identified in recent years, by governments within the region. Particular practices highlighted in the report are interference with personal computers, piracy of mobile phones, extracting and exploiting data from large digital platforms, social engineering, and facial recognition software for surveillance.
Furthermore, the report identifies some specific practices used to censor or limit speech in the public space. Thus, posts on social media or digital media are monitored, which are criminalized as a form of censorship, as States are unable to directly manipulate these platforms on the Internet.
HOW DOES STATE SURVEILLANCE WORK ONLINE?
The report also highlights how mass surveillance technologies are normally used in countries within the region with authoritarian governments, as instruments of repression against dissidence. Some forms of censorship that stem from surveillance work indirectly by scaring citizens, with criminalization or civil complaints about comments made on social media.
In this regard, criminal or civil lawsuits have been identified against people or groups as a consequence of the mass surveillance practices in Cuba and other countries within the region (Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Honduras and Guatemala).
In the case of Cuba, controversial Decree-Law 370 about the “computerization of Cuban society,” – in force since 2019 – has pushed criminal prosecution with wide-ranging consequences to impose a fine for posts on the Internet that imply the “i) dissemination of information, via public data sharing networks, which goes against social interest, morale and people’s decency and integrity.”
The ACIJ report underlines the fact that many activists or journalists have received this kind of fine. “Cuban activist Juan Luis Bravo was sentenced to two years in prison for refusing to pay the fine. Posts on social media have also been used to open up criminal prosection that have resulted in home arrest. This has been the case for activists Tania Bruguera and Carolina Barrero, who were accused of inciting criminal activity with posts on social media,” it explains.
LEGALIZING STATE SURVEILLANCE ONLINE
Cuba is one of the few countries along with Argentina and El Salvador on the continent that has a law about mass surveillance. Argentina and El Salvador join the archipelago, however, the law in Cuba works differently to the law in those countries.
In Argentina, the National Intelligence Law establishes the ban on organizations that work with intelligence to “obtain information, produce intelligence or store personal data, for the simple fact of their race, religious beliefs, private actions, or political opinion, or for joining or being a member of an organization.”
El Salvador punishes those “who obtain data by improper means, reserved or confidential information in a system that information and communications technologies use or any of its components,” with up to eight years in prison, as stipulated in the Special Law Against Computer and Related Crimes.”
However, Cuba uses legislation for the exact opposite: the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights and Colectivo+Voces Foundation warn that “discretional powers have been granted – to Internet providers even – to extend their monitoring means and scope for taking action as a result. Extending these powers without legal supervision was the reason for UN reporters’ concern in the report issued about Decree-Law 35 and its complimentary laws.”
On the other hand, Cuba seems to be the only country that has a law about the existence of projects or regulations approved that establish or drive the creation or design of public authorities to intervene in matters of censorship online. This is stipulated in Resolution 105 by the Ministry of Communications, which approves the “Regulation on the National Action Model for Response to Cybersecurity Incidents.”
This law established the creation of an authority specialized in cybersecurity that will work alongside officials from the Ministry of Communications, Ministry of Interior and Armed Forces. However, the ACIJ report points out that the plans for how this authority will be organized and its powers are still unknown; but it will have the ability to “(…) prevent, detect and respond immediately to possible enemy, criminal or toxic activity that may take place in cyberspace.” Up until today, the Office of Information Network Security is the authority responsible for monitoring, keeping a close eye on and defending networks and the Internet in Cuba.
LACK OF INFORMATION AND HATE SPEECH
Misinformation and hate speech are two phenomena that present a series of challenges when it comes to protecting freedom of speech. These messages can affect other legitimate expressions or amplify discrimination against marginalized groups, via deterrence.
As the ACIJ report points out, “technology has allowed a spike in the creation and dissemination of both fake or manipulated information, as well as discourse that incites discrimination, intolerance and violence towards certain groups. New channels also facilitate the anonymity of these expressions and make it very hard to apply classical “solutions”, such as the right to reply and reparations from those responsible.”
Meanwhile, the report highlights how lack of information is becoming more intense where the democratic space is small, which leads to a vicious cycle, which is particularly harmful for institutions and democracy. Authoritarian speech and antidemocratic ideas that a lack of information boosts a lot of the time, can also contribute to restrictions on freedom of speech, to some extent.
A report by the UN Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression published in April 2021, headed by Irene Khan, talked about the issue: “There is more and more proof that a lack of information tends to prosper where human rights are limited, where the system of public information isn’t robust and where the level of quality, diversity and independence of the press is low. On the contrary, where freedom of opinion and speech is protected, civil society, journalists and other people are able to call out lies and present other points of view.”