Welcome everyone, thank you so much for being here today. I am grateful to be joined on stage by policymakers and practitioners working tirelessly on defending civic space in Central America. It’s also great to see my dear friend and colleague Deputy Assistant Secretary Emily Mendrala joining the panel from the State Department – I know she will represent us well. A huge thanks to the Wilson Center for hosting us today and to Eric Olson of the Seattle International Foundation for moderating. Finally, a profound thank you to the individuals and organizations, including those in the audience and online, working daily to defend, protect and promote civic space in Central America and globally. We look forward to your questions.
Around the world, civil society actors and independent journalists work to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, advocate for government transparency and accountability, promote rule of law, and expose corruption. Civil society representatives also help to ensure all voices are heard, including those of women, girls, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, LGBTQI+ persons, and many others who can otherwise be marginalized. They often work in the face of threats, harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks. Such actions are too often carried out with impunity.
The U.S. government views a robust and diverse civil society—including nongovernmental and community organizations, independent media, private-sector associations, faith-based entities, and academic institutions—as an essential building block of democracy and development.
We are deeply concerned by the increasing trends of contracting civic space throughout the region. These trends are not only problematic for the health of democratic governance in the region, but they are also a real constraint on our ability to deliver the kind of results for the people of Central America that we seek to achieve through the Root Causes Strategy. In some cases, we have had to pivot away from governmental partners out of necessity, and the actions of these governments and private actors to constrain the freedom of civil society pose a serious obstacle to progress in the region.
Some governments also impose foreign funding restrictions or misuse national security and anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws to clamp down on civil society and independent media’s rights to exercise their freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
The unlawful or arbitrary use of surveillance technologies and internet shutdowns can cut off the public’s access to information, undermine democratic debate, and hinder the vital work of civil society and journalists. These challenges may also extend to threats and reprisals from governments and their proxies when civil society representatives or journalists participate in international dialogues on human rights and related topics.
Reporters Without Borders’ most recent World Press Freedom Index cautioned that Latin America was an increasingly toxic environment for the press, especially for investigative reporters focused on holding power to account. “Increasingly visible and virulent, these public attacks weaken the profession and encourage abusive legal action, smear and intimidation campaigns—especially against women—and online harassment of critical journalists.”
As the Department of State’s 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights clearly outline, the erosion of freedom of expression is particularly alarming. In Guatemala, for example, the Report documents an increase in intimidation and resulting self-censorship. This includes journalists having to flee the country after publishing articles critical of influential citizens; pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials and criminal organizations regarding the content of their reporting; and ongoing online attacks that have real world consequences. Most recently, in the case of José Rubén Zamora, who remains jailed, and whom I was honored to meet during my last visit to Guatemala, the United States has urged full respect of due process under Guatemalan law.
In El Salvador, the passage and implementation of the April 5 Criminal Code amendment by the Legislative Assembly criminalizing reporting on certain gang activities has had a chilling effect on journalism, leading some to self-censor. Though we are unaware of any prosecutions under its stipulations, as written it could lend itself to attempts to censor the media, prevent reporting on corruption and other matters of public interest, and silence critics of the Salvadoran government. We also remain very concerned about threats and intimidation of the free press in El Salvador.
So – rather than simply admiring the problem, what are we doing in response? The State Department works to protect civic space and empower civil society organizations, including in times of crisis. We aim to persuade governments to maintain open civic space and to allow civil society to play its unique and positive role.
As a result, we, in partnership with USAID and other departments and agencies, have developed a whole-of-government initiative to protect, defend, and promote civic space in Central America, called “Voices.” Administrator Samantha Power launched Voices as an interagency initiative at this year’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Since then, we have had regular consultations with stakeholders, launched new programming that directly contributes to the goal of Voices, and hosted a series of panels at the Central America Donors Forum last month in Honduras that gave a platform to experts to discuss current challenges within a regional context. Today marks our first formal Voices event here in Washington D.C.
In developing this initiative, we analyzed the main challenges to civic space in the region and reviewed our diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance through that lens. Based on this exercise, we designed Voices with a focus in three areas: (1) promoting digital democracy and countering digital authoritarianism; (2) promoting freedom of expression and strengthening independent media; and (3) countering the criminalization of civil society actors and providing physical, digital, and legal protection, as necessary. We’ll hear a lot about each of these today.
U.S. foreign assistance programs, including those under our Voices initiative, prioritize building the capacity of local civil society and independent media to demand transparent, responsive, and accountable government institutions that foster respect for human rights and the rule of law, and support democracy. We also want to emphasize the importance of collective efforts to counter democratic backsliding. No one can do this alone. This requires an understanding of the ecosystem of civic actors and those allies in government and private sector who need to work and come together when authoritarian tendencies are on the rise.
Existing programming also allows the United States to provide assistance directly to embattled civil society organizations and journalists that are under threat or attack. For example, the Department of State’s rapid response programs, largely managed through our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, directly supports civil society actors and journalists who are at risk due to their human rights related work. We’re excited to share more about how Voices can respond to existing threats to civil society during today’s panel.
Finally, in the context of defending civic space, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention the annual international campaign “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence,” which runs from November 25th (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to December 10th (International Human Rights Day).
The 16 Days of Activism campaign, launched in 1991, has been used worldwide to call for the elimination of gender-based violence (GBV). One in three women worldwide are victims of gender-based violence. 14 out of the 25 most dangerous countries for women are in Latin America. The Department takes this campaign and the threat of gender-based violence seriously and works diligently to prevent and respond to gender-based violence through policies and programming worldwide.
We applaud the Wilson Center’s commitment to address gender-based violence. Their ongoing Gender-Based Violence Project advances women’s economic empowerment as a tool to reduce violence against women, sheds light on existing gaps in legislation, advocates for policies to effectively protect women from violence, and aims to reduce and eliminate barriers to implementation.
And with that, I’ll once again thank all of the organizations here for your vital work to advance freedom, truth, and justice under difficult and often dangerous conditions. The United States is committed to partnering with and learning from you. I know this is going to be an exciting conversation today. Thanks again to Eric Olson for moderating and the floor is yours.