The law provides for freedom of speech and press; however, the combination of laws and regulations governing libel and media content, as well as legal harassment and physical intimidation of both individuals and the media, resulted in practical limitations on these freedoms. National and international groups, such as Reporters without Borders, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), and the Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned government efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Speech: The law makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are punishable by one-to-three-year prison sentences and fines starting at BsF 55 (approximately $13).
The government took reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy.
On October 21, the National Assembly designated a subcommission to investigate alleged corruption related to a 2006 construction contract by opposition Deputy Julio Montoya and his wife. Many observers considered the investigation to be a response to Montoya’s August 15 release of a confidential report from the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank on the government’s controversial plan to repatriate 211 tons of gold reserves from U.S. and European institutions and transfer approximately $6.28 billion in liquid reserves to banks in Russia, China, and Brazil. Previously Montoya had charged that the government was complicit in the April 25 robbery of his office and the September 21 hacking of his personal e-mail and social networking sites to “intimidate” his investigations of alleged government corruption. Montoya had publicized alleged narcotics trafficker Walid Makled’s charges that senior government and military officials were involved in his narcotrafficking network and that he had financed some government political campaigns (see below).
On July 13, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, a former governor of Zulia State and a 1993 presidential candidate, was found guilty of disseminating false information and sentenced to two years in prison for his comments during a March 2010 television interview. In that interview he claimed that Venezuela was a “center of operations for drug trafficking” and suggested that President Chavez “could fall” in any international investigation of Venezuela’s links with the FARC and ETA terrorist organizations. The court granted Alvarez Paz conditional parole.
There were no developments in the case of Antonio Rivero, a retired brigadier general who was charged in August 2010 with “slander against the armed forces” and “publicly revealing private information and military secrets” for his April 2010 public denunciation of excessive Cuban influence in the military. Rivero remained free pending trial, but a military judge prohibited him from leaving the country, required him to appear before a judge every 15 days, and prohibited him from speaking publicly about the charges against him.
Freedom of Press: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.
The reformed Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television (RESORTE) and the amended Organic Law for Telecommunications, which went into effect in December 2010, prohibit all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; and incite or promote disobedience to the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the state greater authority to regulate the content and structure of the radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government can suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such action necessary to the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The telecommunications law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms, and the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) oversees the law’s application.
The government used its authority under the telecommunications law to censor Globovision, a privately owned cable news station that was critical of the government. On October 17, CONATEL imposed a fine of BsF 9.3 million (approximately $2 million) on Globovision for its reporting of the El Rodeo Penitentiary riot (see section 1.c.). CONATEL claimed that Globovision sought to create civil unrest by doctoring an audiotape to add sounds of machine gun fire to the background, repeatedly broadcasting the most sensational statements of the inmates’ relatives, and failing to report all the government’s statements concerning the riot. Globovision denied the charges, stated that its broadcasts had filled an information vacuum left by the government’s failure to report on the events in the prison, and appealed CONATEL’s decision. The appeal remained pending at year’s end. CONATEL had six other administrative investigations pending against Globovision at year’s end.
The law requires that practicing journalists have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state government leaders continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists throughout the year using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. Government officials, including the president, used government-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antigovernment destabilization campaigns and coup attempts.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the independent media through administrative, financial, and legal means in order to affect their editorial positions. Members of the independent media privately said they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
While the country’s major newspapers were independently owned, some print media tended to exercise caution in order to secure government advertising. Two national newspapers, Diario Vea and Correo del Orinoco, received direct financial support from the government. The Caracas newspaper Ciudad CCS was run by the presidentially appointed Capital District vice president and received funding from the mayor of the Libertador municipality of Caracas.
The government sometimes engaged in direct press censorship. On August 21, SEBIN officials detained Dinorah Giron, the director of the opposition-oriented weekly newspaper Sexto Poder, for the newspaper’s front-page photo montage of female government officials as “cancan” girls and the accompanying article, which alleged that the government put on a “cabaret” to distract the public from real issues. The court also issued an arrest warrant for the newspaper’s editor, Leocenis Garcia. At an August 21 rally, TSJ President Luisa Morales said the photograph “offended the dignity” of the female officials and called for the government to close the newspaper immediately for the “flagrant violation of women’s rights.” The court ordered the newspaper to stop publishing on August 21 but allowed it to resume on August 30, when Garcia surrendered to authorities. The court ordered the newspaper not to publish text or images that offended or insulted the reputation of public officials or that were insulting toward women. The Public Ministry charged Giron and Garcia with instigating hatred, insulting public officials, and violence against women. The court granted Giron, but not Garcia, conditional release. Employees of Sexto Poder issued a communique on October 30 in which they claimed government officials were “pressuring” Garcia to sell his majority share in the newspaper in exchange for his release from prison. On November 21, following Garcia’s 12-day hunger strike to protest his continued detention, the court granted him conditional release pending trial. On August 31, the IACHR’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression condemned the government’s actions regarding Sexto Poder, stating that these events “are opposite to regional standards in the field of freedom of expression and have an effect of intimidation and self-censorship, which compromises not only the people directly affected but also all the media in Venezuela.”
The government also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications by private broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. The press reported that approximately 250 radio stations operated with lapsed licenses despite having submitted timely renewal applications to CONATEL years earlier. In an October 31 interview, radio journalist Marta Colomina, a government critic, claimed that she had been fired from the independent Union Radio in mid-October because of government pressure on the station’s owners, who were concerned about being able to renew the expired licenses of 30 radio stations in their network. Colomina claimed the government was trying to provoke self-censorship in the media “to substitute reality with the fiction of a happy world.” During the year CONATEL closed 27 privately owned FM radio stations, charging that they were pirate stations operating illegally or had not complied with administrative or tax obligations. While some station owners publicly denied those allegations, the press quoted the president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Radio Broadcasting as saying that the chamber was “satisfied by the measures adopted by the national government against the so-called clandestine stations.”
On January 21, privately owned cable station RCTV, previously registered as an international audiovisual producer, applied to CONATEL to register as a national audiovisual producer and thereby resume its cable and satellite broadcasts. Cable operators had ceased broadcasting RCTV in January 2010 after CONATEL reclassified it as a “national audiovisual producer” and then alleged it was violating the requirement of national producers to provide live coverage of mandatory government broadcasts (cadenas), including most speeches by President Chavez. CONATEL had not acted on RCTV’s application by year’s end. In August RCTV launched an Internet radio station.
On August 13, the TSJ rejected a request for an injunction against radio frequency 102.3, which had been reassigned from the privately owned National Belfort Circuit (CNB) to the National Assembly in 2009. The TSJ denied the CNB’s claim that the reassignment of the frequency was intended to “silence a dissident voice” and claimed that the CNB petitioners could express their opinions in other media. CNB’s appeal of the decision to reassign the frequency remained pending at year’s end.
National Security: The government sought to exercise control over the press through the Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA), established in June 2010. This government entity, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior and Justice, is responsible for “compiling, processing, and analyzing” both government-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.” The National Journalists Association (CNP) and five domestic NGOs publicly expressed concern about the potential for abuse and censorship on national security grounds by CESNA. In July 2010 Public Space, the CNP, and the National Union of Press Workers filed a complaint with the TSJ contesting the constitutional basis for the formation of CESNA. On November 30, the TSJ’s constitutional chamber remanded the case to the political-administrative chamber, ruling that the complaint did not raise constitutional questions. The chamber argued that the presidential decree establishing the CESNA did not represent an exercise of constitutional authority, but rather of legal authority derived from the Organic Law on Public Administration. The case remained pending with the political-administrative chamber at year’s end.
Nongovernmental Impact: The domestic media watchdog NGO Public Space reported that, as of September 30, the government was responsible for 68 percent of the 140 reported violations of freedom of expression during the previous nine months. Public Space received 159 such violations during the same period in 2010. Violations included physical attacks, threats and intimidation, censorship, verbal and judicial harassment, and administrative restrictions. The NGO Press and Society Institute reported 75 physical attacks on journalists in 2010 and 2011. The widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks resulted from common criminal activity or were specifically directed against members of the media.
Notable examples of attacks against journalists and media outlets were:
• On May 17, the body of El Clarin columnist and opposition political activist Wilfred Ojeda Peralta was found in Aragua State. He had been bound, beaten, hooded, and shot in the head. On May 23, the IACHR’s Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression condemned the killing and asked the authorities “not to discount the possibility that the murder was motivated by Ojeda’s journalistic work.” On June 29, the CICPC reported they had identified the perpetrators as two brothers, Gabriel and Jesus Rafael Prieto Araujo, who allegedly killed Ojeda in a personal dispute over a debt.
• On July 31, several assailants attacked the headquarters of Vive TV in Zulia State in a drive-by shooting that wounded a security guard and a police officer. The station’s president claimed the attack was intended to intimidate the government-owned television station. He claimed the station’s reporting was “inconvenient for certain sectors because we have dealt with fundamental issues, such as the demarcation of indigenous lands, production in private enterprises, among others.” In an August 3 press release, the IACHR’s Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression condemned the act “of violence and intolerance.” According to press reports, the CICPC traced the assault to the “Untouchables” gang, which was allegedly involved in extorting local businesses. CICPC officials claimed that two individuals involved in the Vive TV attack were killed in a shoot-out with police on August 3.
Regarding cases that occurred in prior years:
• On March 29, the court sentenced Walter Perez Canizalez and Yorman de Jesus Elias to 16 years’ imprisonment for the March 2010 killing of Israel Marquez, the director of the newspaper Diario 2001.
• On March 25, the court sentenced Oscar David Cabrera Fernandez to 15 years’ imprisonment for the January 2010 killing of Diario Panorama Director Wilmer Ferrer.
On July 27, the court ordered to trial Walid Makled, who was indicted as the “intellectual author” of the 2009 killing of investigative journalist Orel Sambrano. Three other individuals previously had been charged in connection with Sambrano’s killing: former Carabobo police officer Rafael Segundo Perez, convicted in May 2010 and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment, and Jose Duque Daboin and David Antonio Yanez Inciarte, who remained detained pending completion of their trials.