Journalist killed in Paraguay’s border with Brazil

In March 2020, Paraguay’s government enacted laws to restrict large public gatherings and establish a nationwide state of emergency due to the corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic. In this period, there have been reports of security forces humiliating non-complying civilians while enforcing the country’s quarantine measures. Videos of such incidents, recorded and shared by police officers themselves, circulated on social media. Euclides Acevedo, the Minister of Interior, said that people infringing lockdown rules should be morally punished and praised the officers: "I congratulate them. I don't have the same creativity as those that are making the videos”.

Expression

Brazilian journalist murdered in Pedro Juan Caballero

On 12th February 2020, Brazilian journalist Lourenço "Léo" Veras was shot and killed at his home in Pedro Juan Caballero, a city on the border with Brazil. Veras was an editor of digital news outlet Porã News, which publishes information on organised crime and corruption in the region. According to news sources, the journalist was executed by around 12 shots fired by three gunmen who invaded his home while he was having dinner with his family. Veras had received death threats in the previous months and local police stated that the killing could be a reprisal for his reporting.

Since the killing, local journalists have reported a climate of fear. At the beginning of the year, on 19th January 2020, 75 prisoners broke out of the regional penitentiary in Pedro Juan Caballero. Many of the them were linked to the Brazilian criminal faction PCC (First Command of the Capital). Paraguayan journalist Cándido Figueredo, a close friend of Veras and a journalist working in the same town, told the Knight Centre that the situation in the region is very tense. "There are rumours that the PCC is planning attacks against other journalists, so we are being very careful." For almost 25 years, Figueredo has lived with a police escort after numerous attacks and threats against his life.

Journalists’ associations in Brazil and Paraguay have urged authorities to investigate thoroughly. The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also published a statement condemning the brutal murder and recalling that violence against journalists in the Americas has worsened, in many cases with the presence of organised crime. The Rapporteur’s Office highlighted the vulnerability of journalists who investigate acts of corruption and drug trafficking in the border regions of Paraguay with Brazil or Argentina. In this regard, the statement urges the Paraguayan Government to intensify early warning initiatives and other preventive measures, in line with its international obligations.

(Dis)information in times of COVID-19

In a positive development, on 1st April 2020, a senator withdrew a legislative proposal that could have overly constrained freedom of expression during the COVID-19 pandemic. Presented on 18th March 2020, the bill "That sanctions non-compliance with the measures ordered in the face of epidemiological alerts and in a state of health emergency" sought to sanction those who put the health of others at risk during emergency situations.

TEDIC, a civil society organisation working on access to information, warned that the project contained articles that could generate setbacks for freedom of expression under the pretext of fighting disinformation or fake information. Urging legislators to reject the bill, TEDIC argued that tackling disinformation and fake news requires creating measures focused on education to develop critical thinking and the full exercise of freedom of expression.

Peaceful Assembly

17-year-old activist leads protests in Mayor Otaño

Student-led demonstrations against alleged misuse of public funds in the Mayor Otaño municipality, Itapúa department, have resulted in clashes between young activists and government supporters and the criminalisation of a student leader. The mobilisation began on 30th September 2019, with protests outside of Mayor Otaño’s town hall to demand accountability from local authorities and transparency in the use of resources for education. In early October 2019, local media reported clashes between the protesters and groups linked with town mayor Pedro Chávez.

On 31st October 2019, Nelson Maciel denounced that some students in the protests had been harassed, and that he himself had been cited in four different libel complaints. He also said that he and his family had received threats. On 7th November 2019, the young activist was injured in the head in clashes with security forces during a protest. Paraguay’s UNICEF called on authorities to avoid violent confrontations and ensure children’s rights to social participation. Repercussions after the incidents led president Mario Abdo Benítez to publicly request the hiring of Maciel’s mother, who was fired from her job at a local public health centre reportedly because of her son’s engagement in the protests. She was later offered a new position at the Ministry of Health. The country’s Ministry of Children and Youth also published a note saying that the use of intimidation against a young leader exercising his right to expression was regrettable.

"Mayor Otaño is a submissive town in which people don't challenge the status quo," Maciel said. "There has never been a citizen protest in response to the actions of a politician. People have been put to sleep by so much fear and injustice. Now we, the young people, are working with the community. It's only a question of igniting the flame so that they can go out onto the streets to demand what is theirs."