Cristian León, based in Buenos Aires, works for Asuntos del Sur, a “think/do tank” that works to strengthen democracy and participation. Originally from Bolivia, Cristian works on open government and democracy across several countries in Latin America, including conducting digital security trainings. He is also one of the founders and current advisors to the Internet Bolivia Foundation.
Over Zoom a couple of months ago, we discussed the current threats to free expression in Latin America, the connection between digital security and expression, and the increasing culture of surveillance he sees in the region.
Jillian C. York: What does free expression mean to you?
For me, it’s the ability for someone to express their mind, their thoughts as they are, without pressure. It’s the ability to say anything you want.
York: I love hearing the different answers to this! And what brought you to your work?
I’ve had many cases where I felt like I didn’t have free expression. Much of my professional life has been related to equality, and defense of human rights, so I’ve seen many cases where I suffer myself, or where other people’s [ability to express themselves] was cut off.
Some examples I can mention: Feminist cases, I have many feminist colleagues, who can’t use the green scarf [editor’s note: a symbol of the abortion rights movement in Argentina] in some government buildings, because some people from the government don’t like it because they don’t want to hear demands related to abortion. So when they go to a meeting with someone from the government, they have to stop wearing the scarf.
Another case, from Bolivia—you know, recently we had a situation where our last president, Evo Morales … the army told him to resign, and another party took control over the government. The transitional government wasn’t legal. I wrote about it on Twitter, and many people that I know, relatives or friends, actually wrote me private messages to shut up because, even though they thought it was bad, they didn’t want me to express anything about it because they know I have relationships to international organizations. Some people even threatened to harm my parents. For that reason, I couldn’t express myself freely on Twitter. That was [a couple months] ago.
York: Do you feel safe now?
Yes, I’m safe, my parents are safe, but I cannot express anything about that topic on Twitter. I can talk about many issues, but not about whether that was a coup or not.
York: Wow, I’m glad you’re safe, but that’s intense. Are you observing or working on other issues in Latin America?
Yes. I’ve been working in Nicaragua, in Colombia, Bolivia, and Argentina.
York: I think it would be really interesting for readers to know what you see, in the next decade, as some of the threats to free expression in Latin America.
What I see is that fear is growing, and because of that many people are afraid to express themselves. For example, I know several cases from Colombia where people believe their phones were tapped. They’re afraid to say things on calls because they thought the government might hear them. They asked me how to know if your phone is being [spied on.]
The same issue happened in Nicaragua, but the difference is that the government there doesn’t have as much capacity, technology, to do that. But in Colombia, we believe that they do.
Because of the movies, because of the Snowden story, people believe—and I think in some ways they’re right—that they’re being monitored all day long and because of that, they can’t spread ideas. It’s surveillance culture. Somehow, this is positive because people are more aware of data, and how technology can be used in meaningful ways. But it’s really bad for our democracies because free expression is under threat.
In Bolivia as well, even though we know that the Bolivian government doesn’t have this kind of technology, they don’t have this capacity … what we saw—and we have documentation of this—is that people in the streets have [had their phones taken by policemen] who make them open their phones to read their WhatsApp or other messages. There’s a belief that people might be conspiring against the new government. Many journalists, many activists, are being more careful with their phones because of that.
York: As a person who does digital security training, how would you describe the connection between security and expression?
I think that if you don’t have the conditions to know that the channel you’re using is secure, you might not be expressing yourself freely. For people to express themselves, to say whatever they want, they need to have secure channels: Secure phones, encrypted apps. That’s the connection.
York: Yes, I completely agree. Okay, let me take this in a different direction: Do you have a free expression hero?
York: It could be someone from history, someone you know, whatever you like!
For me, I don’t have an individual hero, but I feel like the hero here, at least in Argentina, are the Madres de Mayo—it’s a movement that … there was a dictator in the 1970s, and the Madres de Mayo went out to express themselves and defend their rights, because they were looking for their sons that were lost during this period. They went against the dictatorship. Even now, they are a very powerful and respected movement. And, you know these feminist groups that tried to make abortion legal last year…they are modeled on the Madres de Mayo. To me, they are champions of free expression and democracy in general, because in spite of all the bad conditions and hostility, they went out to defend their rights and expose themselves—because you know that the government here was extremely violent, and most of them could’ve been assassinated, but they went out anyway. You can say that because of this, the democracy here in Argentina is now very strong.
York: That’s a great answer…I’ve really enjoyed everyone’s answer to this question so far.
What we’re experiencing now in Latin America, in most countries, is moving backwards. Usually we say that the direction of human rights is going forward, improving to have more rights. But what I feel now in Latin America, especially after having to give advice to many activists and hear [their stories], there is a sensation now that human rights in general are less respected, and people are afraid of what is coming…especially in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia. I think this is really bad, and it has an impact on how people feel. People no longer feel that they can express what they want anymore. For example, if you go into a meeting and you don’t know the people you’re meeting, you stay quiet because you don’t want to expose yourself. Others could take the information out of the meeting and do something to harm you.
York: Thank you again Cris.