Dan Perjovschi: Freedom of Expression (2005)

Dan Perjovschi: Freedom of Expression (2005)

In the months I have spent at my host organization Internews, I have had the opportunity to learn that information, when used responsibly, and reported objectively and balance, is the best tool to save lives and transform communities. With this premise, Internews works to “empower local media worldwide to give people the news and information they need, the ability to connect and the means to make their voices heard”. To achieve this goal, Internews strives to promote access to quality information from credible and independent sources to promote the social good.

Internews runs different programs and projects under the premise “information saves lives”. For instance, after the earthquake of April 2015 in Nepal, Internews implemented a humanitarian communications project to deliver through local sources quick and reliable information guarantying the aid, recovery, and survival of the affected populations. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Internews developed a tool for improving humanitarian dialogue and help journalists in crisis combating the rumors and misinformation about Ebola epidemic.

Another interesting angle of Internews work, is training journalists, human rights and civil society advocates in techniques that allow them to not only effectively access to and deliver quality information, but to do it securely. For example, in order to cut hate speech and reduce violent words and actions in Myanmar and Kenya, Internews works with journalists through peace building workshops to allow them to produce a more balanced, productive and objective coverage. This workshops have promoted significant changes in the way of informing the public about local and national news. In Latin America and The Caribbean, Internews works to raise digital security awareness and disseminate training materials on this topic to ensure the unrestricted flow of quality and independent information, while preserving the digital and physical security of journalists and human rights advocates.

What I’ve learned in Internews in the past few months, has allowed me to be more aware of the power of information. It also has empower me, as an information consumer, to be more incisive in the quest for quality, balance and independence. Hence, when a scandal, in my home country, Colombia, raises the question about the limits to the right to inform and the right to privacy, I need to think my answer carefully before rush to judge and take a circumstantial position that prevents me to see the big picture.

In the last year, a renowned journalist, the woman with the highest ratings in Colombia, and her team at La FM radio station, have conducted an investigative report about the existence of a possible male prostitution ring within the national police involving high-ranking officials, congressmen and other personalities of the public sector, called “The Community of the Ring”. This investigation, which has gathered enough evidence to the competent authorities open a formal investigation, has cost this journalist being targeted by illegal interceptions, surveillance, and even threats. Also, some members of her team also have been affected by cyber-attacks.

This week, she and her editorial team decided to publish a video recorded in 2008 by a police captain, who exposed the existence of this ring. In the video, the police captain and by that time a senator-now a vice minister-, are having a conversation with sexual content, establishing their sexual preferences, inside a vehicle for official purposes. The police captain, recorded the talk with a hidden camera, in order to prove that this prostitution ring had come to the Congress of the Republic.

However, in the video is possible to listen the captain asking to the senator, insistently, if it is his usual practice to have relationships with policemen, to which the then senator replied several times it is not. Additionally, there is not any reference about money exchange or indications of a relationship between someone who provides sexual services and customer who is paying for them.

The publication of this video by La FM accelerated the resignation of the director of the national police and the vice minister, but also opened the debate in Colombia between the thin line between journalism and privacy. Although the video itself doesn’t constitute a key proof, the Office of the Attorney General will include it to the investigation and compare it to other supporting material to determine its value in the criminal proceedings. However, most of the country’s journalists have expressed their discontent with this video, arguing that not only doesn’t prove the existence of this prostitution ring, but it does affect the privacy and dignity of a person, in this case the vice minister.

In Colombia, journalists have excelled in developing their investigations while maintaining the distance between the public facts and privacy of those involved. Beyond the sexual preferences expressed in this video, an issue that is still taboo in the country, this breaks the characteristic journalistic style, and has been accused of being sensationalist, unbalanced and be a journalist retaliation for the illegal interceptions of which she has been the victim.

After analyzing the situation from my perspective and the knowledge I have gained during the time I’ve been serving at Internews, I have come to three conclusions. First, I believe that, apart from the video, the evidence collected by La FM team against the irregularities committed within the national police, confirmed that it has carried out a meaningful investigative journalism report. This investigation should not only be known by the citizens, who have the right to be informed and to demand accountability, but by the competent authorities who are obliged to dig deep and take the necessary disciplinary and criminal measures to correct this situation. This is the goal of investigative journalism.

Second, unfortunately, illegal interception, cyber-attacks, threats, and surveillance against journalists investigating high-impact events in the country have become a common practice. So I can say without fear of contradiction, that in Colombia are many constraints to freedom of expression and information, often requiring journalists to self-censorship, and even into exile in other countries for security reasons. These facts prove the need to equip Colombian journalists with digital and physical security tools and skills to conduct investigations safely, and avoid censorship and threads.

Lastly, and referring specifically to the video, I consider that while the journalist at any time should self-censor, they should have the ability to discern how far their material serves as an element to inform and prove the facts that support their investigations, and when it is affecting the dignity of a person. In this case, I think this journalist and her team could refer to the content of the video, making a careful editing of it, which allows citizens and the authorities know the facts and take appropriate action without going to compromise personal life of those involved, even more if it wasn’t was a key evidence to confirm the existence of this prostitution ring. A few days ago, this journalist said that if she had to go through this again, she will edit the video to take the facts without compromising the dignity and privacy of people.

Finally, I highlight the courage of this team of journalists to report the irregularities within the national police and other state entities, which proves the quality of investigative journalism in Colombia. However, I’m concerned that there are still no guarantees to safeguard and promote freedom of expression and security of journalists and human rights advocates in the country. And, I conclude my post inviting all of you to analyze the bigger picture and to question yourself where is limit between the right to inform and the right to privacy, because for me the line is still very thin, almost blurred.