Journalist in Uruguay survives attempt on her life

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On 7th February 2017, Isabel Prieto Fernández, a journalist at the Caras y Caretas weekly publication, barely escaped a murder attempt on her life. Prieto Fernández was shot at by someone on a motorcycle while driving with her husband in their car from El Pinar to the capital, Montevideo. The day before she was attacked, Prieto Hernández had published an online article regarding the police misconduct and ill-treatment she had experienced, while attempting to collect information from the authorities about a recent femicide. Given the suspected connection between her work and the subsequent attack, the journalist and several civil society representatives met with national security officials to demand a timely investigation into the murder attempt.

Also in February, several attorneys, prosecutors and public officials received death threats for their role in the prosecution of serious human rights violators during the 1973-1984 military dictatorship. According to a press release by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the death threats were sent by email and it has thus far been impossible to link the emails to a sender. The threatening messages read: “the suicide of General Pedro Barneix will not remain unpunished.” Retired General Pedro Barneix, the former head of Military Intelligence, had faced charges for the 1974 political murder of an activist. He committed suicide in September 2015. According to Prosecutor of the Court, Jorge Díaz, the message he received stated: “No more suicides or unjust prosecutions will be accepted. From now on, for every suicide we will kill three people randomly selected from the following list.” The list attached to the email message included the Uruguayan Defence Minister, the Prosecutor of the Court, the Director of the National Human Rights Institute of Uruguay, and several attorneys and human right defenders who had submitted cases and complaints on human rights abuses from the decade-long dictatorship.

Several state agencies and civil society organisations condemned the threatening messages. The IACHR press release stated:

"The IACHR condemns the attacks on justice operators in Uruguay and urges the State to adopt urgent measures to protect justice operators. The IACHR takes note that judicial investigations have been initiated with regard to these threats, and hopes that it will be established who is responsible for carrying out and masterminding these acts and that those responsible will be effectively punished."

On 13th February 2017, the right to access public information suffered a significant setback as an Executive Decree was issued, thus modifying Decree 500/991, which regulates government transparency and freedom of information. According to the new decree, "any public official who makes public, divulges, or discloses to third parties the documents referred to in this article, except in the cases provided for by law, shall incur a very serious offence..."

Opposition leaders and civil society experts alike view the decree as a regressive move which undermines protections for civil and political liberties. The Open Government Network (Red de Gobierno Abierto, RGA), a group of 17 civil society organisations, condemned the decree as:

“a regressive regulation regarding the protection of the right to access public information as it ignores the principle of maximum publicity that should guide the administrative management in accordance with Law 18.381. The legal and political discourse underlying the decree promotes secrecy and reveals the conception that information belongs to the Administration and not to society as a whole.”

The language in the decree is vague and unclear; and many fear that it could prevent public interest data from becoming public, including information about corruption, threats to public health and security, as well as environmental and human rights violations.