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 NGO Press and Society Institute (IPYS) reported that the government committed 254 violations of freedom of expression during the first six months of the year, a 68 percent increase from the same time in 2012.
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 ($8.73).
The government took reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy. For example, on July 11, a local court subpoenaed journalist Nelson Bocaranda to respond to claims that he had incited violence after the April 14 elections. On April 15, Bocaranda tweeted that election officials stored ballot boxes in the Cuban-government-staffed Integrated Diagnostic Center (CDI) in Maracaibo, Zulia. Government officials alleged Bocaranda’s tweets motivated opposition protesters to attack the CDI center and held him responsible for the injuries of 25 Cuban medical personnel. Government critics claimed charges against Bocaranda were unfounded and were retaliation for Bocaranda’s past reports about the president Chavez’s cancer.
Press Freedoms: 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 November 12, IPYS reported 228 violations of freedom of the press.
The Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television and the Organic Law for Telecommunications 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 March 11, Globovision--the country’s only opposition-oriented 24-hour news channel--was sold to businessmen Juan Cordero, Raul Gorrin, and Gustavo Perdomo. On September 30, CONATEL opened an administrative investigation against Globovision for reporting on food and automobile shortages in the country. CONATEL asserted the investigative report intended to generate anxiety among the population. If found guilty, the channel could face a fine of up to 10 percent of its gross income from the previous year. There remained eight pending administrative investigations and six pending fines against Globovision at year’s end.
On July 27, the attorney general requested that a Caracas court freeze the bank accounts of Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the opposition-leaning newspaper El Nacional. The Attorney General’s Office released a statement alleging that the action related to an illegal enrichment investigation from 2003. In another judicial procedure against El Nacional, a Caracas court fined the newspapers El Nacional and Tal Cual for publishing photographs in 2010 of piles of bodies in the city morgue. The fine was equivalent to 1 percent of the newspapers’ 2009 gross income. IPYS stated that both cases against El Nacional were efforts to criminalize media that were critical of the government. El Nacional and Tal Cual were appealing the fine 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 258 violations of freedom of expression between January and November, 177 of which involved physical attacks, threats, and intimidation against journalists. As a notable example of such attacks, on March 5, individuals attacked Carmen Andrea Rengifo, a reporter from the Colombian television channel RCN, while she covered the events immediately following President Hugo Chavez’s death. Attackers reportedly beat her and her cameraman, kicked them, and then chased them out of the military hospital (where President Chavez reportedly died). Attackers reportedly mistook her for an employee of an “anti-Chavez” television station.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: According to a study conducted by IPYS, the government exerted increased pressure during the year on the independent media through administrative, financial, and legal means to influence their editorial positions. IPYS stated that legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against news outlets incurred lower political costs than shutting down news outlets directly. Members of the independent media privately said they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal. Public Space reported that between January and November, there were 71 cases involving censorship, compared with 53 cases for all of 2012. In addition, Public Space reported harassment of the media through legal means increased by 246 percent, as did cases of intimidation (124 percent), between January and November.
State-owned media provided almost continuous progovernment programming. In addition, private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts throughout the year. Public Space reported that during the first seven months of the year, there were 90 hours and 27 minutes of mandatory broadcasts. Most broadcasts were progovernment propaganda on economic, political, and military issues. President Maduro used mandatory broadcasts 87 times totaling 538 minutes through public and private television and radio between April 15 and November 15. On September 9, President Maduro announced that government activities and initiatives would be transmitted twice a day through mandatory nationwide broadcasts.
While the country’s major newspapers were independently owned, some print media tended to exercise caution to secure government advertising.
On July 23, a Bolivar state court censured the regional newspaper Correo del Caroni in Bolivar state for publishing news on a corruption scandal within the government-run company Ferrominera. The scandal reportedly involved high-level government and security officials and businessman Jamal Mustafa, who were affiliated with Ferrominera. In addition, the court admitted a civil case by Jamal Mustafa against Correo del Caroni owner David Natera for libel and defamation. A court order prevented the newspaper from publishing anything related to Jamal Mustafa and the corruption investigation until the civil case was resolved. No hearing was scheduled at year’s end.
On July 30, Leocenis Garcia, editor and owner of the opposition-oriented weekly newspaper Sexto Poder, was arrested and charged with tax fraud and money laundering. The Public Ministry and local court ordered the closing of Sexto Poder and the freezing of Garcia’s other assets during the investigation. On September 4, Garcia’s attorneys complained the court refused to permit them to review the evidence and charges against their client. After a hunger strike, Garcia was transferred to a military hospital and remained in detention pending a trial date.
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. Public Space reported that many station owners requested renewed licenses, but CONATEL did not respond in a timely manner and then punished the radio stations by sanctioning them or refusing to renew their licenses.
Libel Laws/National Security: On October 9, the government sought to exercise control over the press through the creation of a new government entity known as the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), which was similar to the government entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA), established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both government-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.” The TSJ took no further action at year’s end on a complaint filed by NGOs in March 2012 seeking the annulment of CESNA. On October 15, opposition leaders from the political party COPEI filed a similar complaint to the TSJ against CESPPA, but the TSJ had taken no action at year’s end.
Nongovernmental Impact: The widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks against journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted 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. The law, however, 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. The law puts the burden of filtering electronic messages on service providers, provides that CONATEL can order them to block access to websites that violate these norms, and sanctions them with fines for distributing prohibited messages. Human rights and media freedom advocates complained the law thus 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 without appropriate legal authority. Public Space reported that the social networking sites, e-mails, and websites 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 cyber attacks, particularly hacking, against websites and Twitter or Facebook accounts of political officeholders and candidates that appeared politically motivated. For example, on April 14, the government-run internet provider shut down internet service for three minutes during the presidential elections. The then minister of science and technology, Jorge Arreaza, stated the shutdown was to prevent international cyber attacks. The shutdown came after several Twitter accounts of government officials--including those of then presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello--were hacked. In addition, on April 15, the government shut down the CNE website because of 45,000 cyber attacks, according to the government. The site eventually returned after one day but remained inaccessible for one week to individuals with international IP addresses.
On November 10, President Maduro announced the government blocked seven internet sites that post dollar and euro currency exchange rates other than the government’s official rate. Maduro accused these websites of creating economic instability and intended to crack down on speculation by businesses inflating prices to equal the unofficial rate. CONATEL also announced an investigation against eight private and state-run internet providers for permitting access to these websites. The NGO Public Space stated this was the first time the government sanctioned internet providers.
The International Telecommunication Union reported 44 percent of individuals used the internet during the year. According to the newspaper El Nacional, 14 million citizens had internet access and connected to the internet five to seven days a week.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were some government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. University leaders and students alleged the government retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by allocating budgets for those universities significantly below the annual inflation rate. Autonomous and other public universities not affiliated with the government last received a budget increase in 2006. On June 6, the Federation of University Professors Association of Venezuela (FAPUV) called for an indefinite work stoppage in 13 universities until the government increased university salaries by 100 percent. On October 8, the Ministry of Higher Education reached an agreement with university representatives to increase salaries by 98 percent. On November 14, professors, students, and supporters marched in Caracas to protest the government’s noncompliance with the agreed-upon terms of the new agreement.
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. Between June and July, armed men attacked students, professors, and campus buildings 62 times. For example, on June 19, an armed group burned two buses and fired handguns at the Central University of Venezuela rector’s office.