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 the government prevented access to official information in 69 instances, especially during the widespread protests between February and May, the months with the highest homicide rates in Caracas; it also prevented access to information related to the spread of the Chikungunya virus.
On September 24, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a statement expressing its “deepest concern” for the deterioration of freedom of expression in Venezuela. The IACHR cited President Maduro’s comments on September 18 accusing media outlets of “psychological terrorism” for reporting on a series of mysterious deaths that took place at a Maracay hospital.
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 prison sentences of one to three-year and fines starting at Bs 55 ($8.75).
The government took reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy. On January 18, a Central University of Venezuela professor wrote an article critical of the government in the opposition-leaning newspaper Tal Cual. The president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, brought a criminal complaint against Tal Cual and Professor Genatios, arguing the opinion piece amounted to defamation. Judge Barbara Cesar Siero imposed a travel ban on Genatios and the directors of Tal Cual. IPYS criticized the move as an attempt to keep local press from criticizing the government.
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.
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 actions necessary in 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’s economic policies made it difficult for newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many newspapers from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. Items that needed to be imported included ink, printing plates, camera equipment, and especially newsprint. According to IPYS, between August 2013 and September 2014, six regional newspapers permanently closed due to the lack of paper, and four newspapers temporarily stopped circulation. Nearly every newspaper in the country reduced pages and news content in an attempt to conserve paper.
During the February and May protests, local NGOs complained of 37 arbitrary detentions of journalists, 67 assaults on journalists, 31 burglaries or thefts of property, and one journalist. During the first quarter of the year, the NGO Public Space reported 174 cases of violations of freedom of expression, an increase of 240 percent compared with the same period in 2013. The most common violations were aggression against journalists, threats, intimidation, and censorship. Public Space also reported that in February alone there were 85 cases of violations of the right to freedom of expression, an increase of 500 percent from the previous February.
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. According to the e-mail newsletter Citizen Monitor, between January and December 3, the government imposed 166 hours of mandatory showing of presidential “cadenas.” The minimum cost in lost revenue for mandatory broadcasts in the year, according to estimates comparing with equivalent television advertising time, was Bs 88,785,065 ($14.1 million). During the February protests, Maduro averaged 84 minutes per day of broadcast time. During the first six months of the year, he broadcasted an average of 61 minutes per day. The minimum cost of all broadcasts (mandatory and nonmandatory) was more than Bs 113 million ($18 million).
During the protests earlier in the year, the National Press Workers’ Union (SNTP) documented 46 cases of physical aggression against journalists. Dozens more were illegally detained, had their equipment stolen by government officials, or were subjected to illegal raids on their organizations’ headquarters or their residences by military intelligence.
The SNTP claimed Ultimas Noticias censored the articles its journalists wrote that were critical of the government.
On July 4, El Universal, a 105-year-old private newspaper, was reportedly sold to a small Spanish company, Epalisticia, for $22 million. Local NGOs criticized the secrecy surrounding the sale and the anonymity of the new owners. Reporters and editors accused the new president of the company, Jesus Abreu Anselmi, of censoring a story on a protest of steelworkers at the state-owned steel plant SIDOR. Media reports indicated 30 editorial contributors had been fired and 15 other contributors resigned in protest. On September 17, longtime political cartoonist Rayma Suprani was reportedly fired from El Universal for a cartoon that satirized equipment and medical shortages at hospitals.
In March, Globovision censured footage of violent attacks by armed individuals and GNB personnel on residents in Maracaibo neighborhoods, causing Globovision’s correspondents Madelyn Palmar, Doricer Alvarado, and Jesus Gonzalez to resign. Doricer Alvarado, former correspondent of Globovision in Lara, explained the new editors censored terms such as “protest” and “civil society” in favor of the blander terms “demonstration” and “collectivity.” On April 3, journalist Reimy Chavez stated Globovision regularly censored its journalists, correspondents, and writers.
The law requires practicing journalists to 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 the profession 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 by 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.
On February 12, CONATEL ordered NTN24, an international news channel that provided live coverage of the student protests, off the air. At year’s end NTN24 remained available only via internet. On February 20, President Maduro revoked the credentials of reporters from CNN but restored them the next day after public outcry.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: An IPYS study released on October 6 indicated censorship is an “umbrella” that not only suppresses information and opinion but affects freedom of expression overall. In its 2014 report, IPYS stated 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 September 10, there were 107 cases involving censorship, 28 cases of harassment of the media through legal means, 85 cases of aggression against journalists, and 25 cases of administrative restrictions. Twenty-nine percent of the cases occurred in February during the height of the protests.
While the country’s major newspapers were independently owned, some print media tended to exercise caution to secure government advertising.
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 many station owners requested renewal of their broadcast 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. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, there were approximately 2,000 illegal radio stations in the country. According to local NGOs, CONATEL had not renewed licenses for most stations since 2007. CONATEL’s website showed 250 community radio stations registered. Local NGOs considered this a government tactic to encourage self-censorship by being able to close the radio station if it transmits antigovernment content.
Libel Laws/National Security: The government exercised control over the press through the government entity known as the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is 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 2012 seeking the annulment of CESNA.
Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted members of the media.
The government blocked the use of Twitter’s photograph-sharing tool during widespread protests. The government also regulated internet speeds by the government-owned internet provider CANTV as a method of preventing groups from organizing protests.
The law prohibits the dissemination of messages or information that could incite violence, promote hatred and intolerance, lead to killings or other crime, 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, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers 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 limited freedom of expression.
Some NGOs, members of the opposition, and government critics expressed concern the government monitored e-mails and web searches without appropriate legal authority. Public Space reported that 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 cyberattacks, particularly hacking, on websites, Twitter, and Facebook accounts of political officeholders and candidates that appeared politically motivated.
The government continued to block seven internet sites that post dollar and euro currency exchange rates other than the government’s official rate. In August the government announced it would request information from Twitter on the handles of several users active during the February-May protests to pursue criminal proceedings against them.
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 had not received a budget increase since 2006.
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. According to media reports, there were 31 attacks on 18 universities in 11 states during the spring protests. Security officials and government-supported armed civilians led most of the attacks, although some were committed by students. For example, five persons were injured and 14 cars were destroyed at the University Lisandro Alvarado in Barquisimeto.