Freedom of Expression

Press Release R57-09


PREN R57/09




Washington, D.C., August 5, 2009 -  The Rapporteur for Venezuelan Affairs of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Commissioner Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, and the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Catalina Botero Marino, sent a communication today to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of  Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, in order to express their deep concern about the deterioration of the situation of freedom of expression, to request information on the recent events in that country and to submit observations with respect to the Special Legislative Bill on Media-Related Crimes proposed by the Atorney General’s Office.


In recent months high-ranking State officials have made strong public statements against several media outlets, their directors and journalists, accusing them of practicing "media terrorism" and of encouraging "hate speech" that could affect the "mental health" of the Venezuelan people. Subsequent to such statements, acts of violence have incresaed against several of these media outlets by private groups tied to the government. On August 3, 2009, Globovisión, a television station previously declared a "military objective" by a criminal group, was the target of a serious attack by private groups. The attackers were armed and entered the headquarters of the television station, fired tear gas cannisters, intimidated the employees of the station and injured a security guard. In their letter, Commissioner Pinheiro and the Special Rapporteur condemned these serious acts, acknowledged the swift responses of President Hugo Chávez and Tareck El Aissami, Minister of the Interior and Justice, and urged Venezuelan authorities to investigate, identify, prosecute and punish the persons responsible for these violent acts. They reminded the State that, due to the serious threats against them, the journalists, directors and employees of Globovisión are protected by the provisional measures ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2004.


In their letter they also expressed their concern about information indicating that on July 3, 2009, the National Council of Telecommunications (Conatel) ordered that the television and radio broadcasting of advertisements critical of a legislative reform bill be canceled. The prohibitive measure indicated that such advertising could constitute a threat to public order, and other authorities stated that it would adversely affect the "mental health" of the inhabitants of Venezuela. Following this decision, the competent authorities would have opened administrative sanctions proceedings against the media outlets that broadcast such advertising and the Attorney General’s Office would have filed a criminal complaint against the print media that published it. 


In this regard, the Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur reminded the State that, in accordance with the case law of the Inter-American Court, the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 13 of the American Convention must be guaranteed not only with regard to the dissemination of ideas and information that is received favorably or considered inoffensive or indifferent but also in cases of speech that is offensive, shocking, unsettling or unpleasant to public officials or to any segment of the population. This is required by the pluralism, tolerance and spirit of openness without which a truly democratic society cannot exist. Likewise, they highlighted that Article 13 of the American Convention prohibits censorship.


The letter also makes reference to the July 31, 2009 decision whereby Conatel ordered that 34 radio stations operating in AM and FM throughout the country cease broadcasting immediately. The Minister of Public Works and Housing, Diosdado Cabello, had previously stated that the stations whose permits or licenses were under review "play at destabilizing Venezuela." These statements suggest that the editorial line of these media was one of the reasons for the decision to shut them down. Pinheiro and Botero Marino expressed their deep concern about these events and reminded the State that Article 13.3 of the American Convention establishes that: "The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions."


In addition, on July 30, 2009, Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz submitted to the National Assembly the so-called "Special Legislative Bill on Media-Related Crimes," which establishes prison sentences for "acts that threaten social peace, the security and independence of the nation, law and order, the stability of State institutions and mental health, which result in a climate of impunity or insecurity, and are committed through a communications medium."


In their letter, the Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur remind the Venezuelan State of its obligation to establish a regulatory framework that promotes free, open, plural and uninhibited speech, which entails the design of institutions that enable, not hinder, the social deliberation of all matters and phenomena of public relevance. None of the above is compatible with the indiscriminative use of criminal law as a mechanism to limiting the free circulation of opinions and information, especially when those refer to public affairs.


The ambiguity of the acts described in the bill presented would end up silencing debate on those very issues that deservedly require greater deliberation and public oversight. Likewise, their enormous breadth could seriously undermine the principle of strict legality that, as the Inter-American Court has indicated, requires States to define expressly, precisely and clearly each one of the acts that may be punishable. In the words of the Court, "Ambiguity in the definition of the crime creates doubt and gives authorities discretion, which is particularly undesirable when establishing the criminal liability of individuals and imposing sentences that have a serious impact on fundamental rights such as life or liberty."


Pinheiro and Botero Marino stated that, "If this bill is passed, no person in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela will be able to feel free to express his critical or dissident thoughts without fear of being the target of distressing criminal persecution." 


Finally, the Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur reiterated the prior requests for information on the situations described above. They further offered their assistance to the State in the discussion of public policies or standards related to the fundamental right of freedom of expression.