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 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, 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.
The Press and Society Institute (IPYS) reported that the government committed 200 violations of freedom of expression during the year. Transparency Venezuela reported that during the year the judicial branch ruled against all seven pending cases of violations of freedom of expression submitted by the Pro Access Coalition, a group composed of NGOs advocating the right to access public information.
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 Bs 55 ($13).
The government took reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy. For example, on February 24, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) employee Egilda Gomez said she had been threatened with dismissal because of the political views of her husband, journalist Vladimir Villegas, a former government supporter turned critic. On February 28, the PDVSA fired Gomez following the February 28 publication of her husband’s opinion in the opposition-oriented daily newspaper El Nacional in which he accused the government of “labor harassment, political persecution, witch hunts, and the sowing of fear as daily elements of ‘revolutionary’ management.” According to Villegas, Gomez had been subject to harassment during the previous two years in “political retaliation as a consequence of my positions critical of the government of President Hugo Chavez Frias.” In response to Gomez’s firing, on March 7, Wills Rangel, the president of the government-affiliated Unitary Federation of Oil Workers, publicly claimed that “whoever wants to advocate against our industry or against the commander president, we are going to fight.”
In mid-March the national government threatened two governors for publicly raising concerns over the quality of drinking water in their states. On March 12, in an interview on opposition-oriented Globovision television, Jose Gregorio Briceno, Monagas State governor and then member of President Chavez’s PSUV party, criticized the national government’s response to the February 4 oil spill in Monagas, which left residents of the state without running water for more than a month. He publicly opposed the government’s plan to reopen a pumping station as long as the river water remained contaminated. On March 14, then vice president Elias Jaua accused Briceno of repeated ethical violations and expelled him from the PSUV. President Chavez said that “Briceno got what was coming to him” and called him a “traitor to the people.” On March 14, opposition Carabobo State Governor Henrique Salas Feo denounced the pumping of sewage into potable water pipes serving Caracas and Aragua, Carabobo, Miranda states. He accused the government-managed water utility Hidrocentro of “slowly poisoning three million inhabitants of Carabobo and Aragua by repumping sewage to the population.” On March 16, President Chavez warned Salas Feo against making statements that “border on the criminal.”
On August 9, the National Assembly postponed an inquiry into the corruption allegations against the wife of opposition deputy Julio Montoya. In October 2011 the National Assembly designated a subcommission to investigate alleged corruption related to a 2006 construction contract by Montoya and his wife. Many observers considered the investigation to be in retaliation for Montoya’s criticism of the government’s plans to repatriate its gold reserves abroad and his charges that senior government and military officials were linked to the activities of alleged narcotics trafficker Walid Makled.
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. As of August 20, the IPYS reported 194 violations of freedom of the press.
The reformed Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television (RESORTE) and the amended Organic Law for Telecommunications, which went into effect in 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; or 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.
On November 21, according to press reports, progovernment radicals attacked Radio Libertad FM, funded by the Merida State Catholic Archdiocese, and destroyed the radio tower and transmission system. According to media sources, the attackers were motivated by the station’s interview of former PSUV governor and then gubernatorial candidate Florencio Porras who was running against President Chavez’s handpicked gubernatorial candidate, Alexis Ramirez. The Venezuelan National Guard was investigating the incident at year’s end.
On March 6, the Supreme Court rejected privately owned cable news station Globovision’s request for an injunction against the payment of the Bs 9.3 million (approximately $2 million) fine imposed by CONATEL for its reporting of the June-July 2011 El Rodeo prison riot. Globovision said the station would not pay the fine until it exhausted all its legal appeals. On June 28, the Supreme Court ordered the seizure of approximately Bs 24 million (approximately $5.6 million) in Globovision’s assets pending payment of the fine. On June 19, Globovision paid the fine “under protest” after the TSJ issued an executive decision without allowing Globovision to exhaust its legal appeals. According to Globovision, it feared the potential impact of the seizure on its ability to continue operating. On July 3, the court suspended the embargo. 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.
The NGO Public Space reported that the government was responsible for 61 percent of the 248 reported violations of freedom of expression during the year. Violations included physical attacks, threats and intimidation, censorship, verbal and judicial harassment, and administrative restrictions. The NGO IPYS reported 200 violations of freedom of expression, in which 204 victims suffered physical attacks, between May 2010 and December 2011. According to the IPYS, seven of 10 offenders were linked to the government. Notable examples of such attacks included:
On March 4, armed assailants threatened a Globovision journalist, her cameraman, and her assistant who had captured on videotape the violent attack by progovernment supporters during opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski’s campaign event in the Caracas neighborhood of Cotiza (see section 3). According to the press, the assailants pursued the news team, who sought refuge in a nearby home, threatened them with firearms, and confiscated their camera, film, and other equipment. On March 5, Minister of Interior and Justice Tareck El Aissami accused the opposition of instigating the violence and vowed the perpetrators would be brought to justice; there was no public information about the investigation by year’s end.
On August 10, the NGO IPYS reported that individuals identified with Chavez’s PSUV party assaulted news teams from the independent Televen and Venevision television networks who were covering protests by opposition students in San Cristobal, Tachira State. Televen reported that the attackers sabotaged their recording and verbally abused its news team. Venevision claimed the attackers assaulted and kicked their cameraman, his assistant, and a correspondent. There was no public information about any government investigation of the alleged attacks.
There were no new developments reported in the apprehension or prosecution of Gabriel and Jesus Rafael Prieto Araujo, sought in connection with the May 2011 killing of Wilfredo Ojeda Peralta, an El Clarin columnist and opposition political activist.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the independent media through administrative, financial, and legal means 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 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.
A March 21 Public Ministry injunction requires that when reporting on water quality, television and print media present only information supported by a technical report and backed by the relevant government entity. On March 22, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Diaz claimed the injunction was necessary following allegations of water contamination by two governors, whom she claimed were “trying to generate a matrix of negative opinion… and generate conflict, chaos” (see section 2.a.). Ortega denied the injunction violated the public’s right to information and claimed it ensured that the media “complied with their responsibility” and that the population received information that was “objective, truthful, and timely.”
Dinorah Giron and Leocenis Garcia, the director and editor, respectively, of the opposition-oriented weekly newspaper Sexto Poder, remained on conditional release pending trial on charges of instigating hatred, insulting public officials, and committing violence against women for the newspaper’s August 2011 photos and accompanying article, which alleged that the government put on a “cabaret” to distract the public from real issues.
The government also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. During the first three months of the year, CONATEL closed 35 privately owned FM radio stations, charging that they were pirate stations operating illegally or had not complied with administrative or tax obligations. Some station owners publicly denied those allegations and charged that the government had not shut down pirate stations with a progovernment editorial line. The press reported that more than 1,100 pirate stations continued to operate. The NGO Public Space reported that many station owners requested renewed licenses but “CONATEL does not respond in a timely manner and then punishes the radio stations.” The press quoted the president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Radio Broadcasting as saying that “requesting does not give you the right [to operate]. That is outside the law.”
On April 27, local press quoted privately owned cable station RCTV’s legal adviser Oswaldo Quintana as charging that CONATEL continued to deny RTV’s application to register as a national audiovisual producer and thereby resume its cable and satellite broadcasts. Quintana claimed that “we go there practically every week to register the station. We go and say that we came to submit the technical information and the registration as a national audiovisual producer and they ask us what station we are representing. When we say RCTV, they say the registry is closed.” Cable operators had ceased broadcasting RCTV in 2010 after CONATEL reclassified it from an “international” to a “national” audiovisual producer. CONATEL then alleged that RCTV violated the requirement of national producers to provide live coverage of mandatory government broadcasts (cadenas), including most speeches by President Chavez.
Libel Laws/National Security: The government sought to exercise control over the press through the Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA), established in 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.” On March 22, the Supreme Court admitted a complaint filed by the NGO Public Space, the National Journalists Association, and the National Union of Press Workers in 2010 seeking the annulment of the presidential decree establishing CESNA. The organizations expressed concern about the potential for abuse and censorship on national security grounds by CESNA. The court held a hearing on October 11 and listened to testimony by NGOs but took no further action.
Nongovernmental Impact: The widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks against journalists resulted from common criminal activity or were specifically directed against members of the media.
There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet, and individuals and groups could engage in the expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. However, the reformed RESORTE law subjects Internet providers to government regulations. The law prohibits the dissemination of messages or information that could incite violence, promote hatred and intolerance, lead to crime or murder, foment anxiety in the populace or disturb public order, or be considered disrespectful of public offices or officeholders. It puts the burden of filtering electronic messages on service providers, provides that CONATEL can order them to block access to Web sites that violate these norms, and sanctions them with fines for distributing prohibited messages. Human rights and media freedom advocates complained that the law limited freedom of expression.
During the year some NGOs, members of the opposition, and government critics expressed concern that the government monitored e-mails and Web searches. The NGO Public Space reported that the social networking sites, e-mails, and Web sites of political figures, civil society activists, writers, journalists, and newspapers were hacked during the year. According to the NGO, social network identities were usurped, and personal communications and messages were broadly disseminated, some in government-controlled media.
There were multiple cyberattacks, particularly hacking, against Web sites and Twitter or Facebook accounts of political officeholders and candidates that appeared politically motivated. The government took no action to investigate or punish those responsible for these incidents. The International Telecommunication Union reported that 41 percent of individuals used and 16 percent of households had access to the Internet during the year. According to CONATEL, new Internet user registrations increased 12 percent in the final three months of the year.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were some government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. University leaders and students alleged that the government retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by allocating budgets for those universities significantly below the annual 22.5 percent inflation rate.
Government supporters sometimes disrupted university classes, marches, and rallies and used violence and intimidation to protest university policies and to discourage opposition students from political participation.
The press reported that on June 7, masked individuals violently assaulted approximately 30 students at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) as they were preparing logistics for a June 10 march in support of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. Student leader Hilda Ruby Gonzalez, secretary general of the Federation of University Centers of UCV, claimed the masked individuals doused one of the students with gasoline and attempted to set the student on fire. Gonzalez also claimed several students jumped through windows to escape and were severely beaten. The press reported that 12 students were injured, two with broken ankles, one with a spinal fracture, and one with a broken nose.
According to press reports, on July 3, armed individuals, led by a known progovernment UCV student, attacked professors, university students, and university workers during their march to the National Assembly to protest budget shortages. The assailants reportedly shouted progovernment slogans and threw sticks and stones, injuring four of the marchers. Victor Marquez, director of the UCV Professors Association, claimed the attacks occurred “with the complicity of the state security agencies.”