Mexico, July, 24th, 2017 (Rosental Calmon Alves/UNESCO).  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), specially designed for Latin American judges, train them to promote and safeguard freedom of expression and enlist their help to make the region less dangerous for journalists. The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3, is “Critical Minds for Critical Times”. What better way to achieve critical minds than training the custodians of the legal system about freedom of expression?

Impunity in cases where journalists have been murdered or attacked is a grave problem in many Latin American countries. Only 11% of murders of journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean have been resolved in the last decade, according to UNESCO data released in 2016. As noted by many experts in the region, impunity in these cases often invites further violence against journalists.

In recent years, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has not only listed Mexico, Brazil and Colombia among the deadliest countries for journalists to operate in, but also placed these countries at the top of its Global Impunity Index, which ranks countries where the murderers of journalists go free.

UNESCO thus wondered if MOOCs could be used as tools to reduce violence against journalists in this area. Also, would it be possible to use MOOCs to train judges on issues related to freedom of expression and the protection of journalists? This is why UNESCO launched a MOOC, entitled “The International Legal Framework of Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Protection of Journalists”. Offered four times between 2014 and 2016, the MOOC has benefited over 3,000 judges and judicial-sector operators in Latin America.  The result of a collaboration between UNESCO, IACHR and the Knight Center, the course has reached judges from all Latin American countries, except Cuba.

The MOOC follows the Knight Center’s model used for journalism training. The course is asynchronous, so each student can work on days and times convenient for them, within the course period — in this case, six weeks, from May 8 to June 10, 2017. The course content is divided into weekly modules, each with a set of video lectures, reading materials and forums, where students must discuss the topics and respond to questions posed by the instructors. Those who comply with and complete the course requirements receive a certificate.

The pilot programme, launched in the fall of 2014 with a grant from UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), was aimed exclusively at judges and other justice operators from Mexico.

The response was better than UNESCO could have ever imagined — over 1,000 applications were received, and a total of 932 judges, magistrates, prosecutors, court clerks and other functionaries of tribunals from across Mexico accepted to the course. The Mexican Supreme Court’s support to the project contributed to its extraordinary success. We knew then that we were going in the right direction, using digital technology to offer quality training, with a great benefit-cost ratio compared with traditional, face-to-face training.

Following the success of the two pilot projects in Mexico — one at national level and the other for the state of Coahuila — the first MOOC for judges across Latin America was introduced in the fall of 2015. The government of Sweden supported the project, as did the Ibero American Network of Judicial Schools and the Ibero American Judicial Summit. This helped attract more than 1,200 participants.

Latin America remains one of the most dangerous regions of the world for journalists. But more judges are learning about the international legal framework of freedom of expression, access to information and the protection of journalists. The MOOCs are examples of concrete actions that can contribute to a better understanding of freedom of expression issues in the region.