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Argentina

Executive Summary

Argentina is a federal constitutional republic. Mauricio Macri won election to the presidency in 2015 in multiparty elections the media and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) described as generally free and fair. The country held midterm elections in October for one-third of the Senate and one-half of the Chamber of Deputies.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

The most significant human rights issues included torture by federal and provincial police; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; interference in judicial independence; corruption at all levels of government; gender-based killings of women; and forced labor despite government efforts to combat it.

Judicial authorities indicted and prosecuted a number of current and former government officials who committed abuses during the year, including a number of investigations against high-level officials of the former government.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Independent newspapers, radio and television outlets, and internet sites were numerous and active, expressing a wide variety of views.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. There were reports of media outlet shutdowns and staff dismissals during the year, primarily due to economic concerns. Media observers noted the closures mainly affected outlets that were maintained artificially through public funding mechanisms from the previous administration.

Violence and Harassment: There were reports of physical attacks, threats, and harassment against journalists in relation to their reporting, most of which covered cases of official corruption.

On July 25, Jesus Baez de Nacimiento, owner of Carretero 101 FM Radio, was shot four times as he entered his home in Misiones Province. His assailants were not apprehended by year’s end. The incident was related to the radio station’s reporting on alleged complicity between local police and drug traffickers, according to local media organizations.

The Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA) reported 54 physical attacks against journalists as of October, most sustained during press coverage of protests. Buenos Aires city police detained three journalists on September 1 while they were covering a demonstration, releasing them three days later. Two other television journalists were injured by police use of tear gas during the protest. On October 1, four television journalists from various channels alleged unknown individuals assaulted them during another demonstration. FOPEA expressed concern over these attacks during protests, claiming that certain media outlets were targeted due to their editorial lines, and called for enhanced security measures to protect journalists reporting on protests.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On March 23, a national appeals court levied on the satirical magazine Barcelona a significant fine for damages after it published a controversial cover with the image of Maria Cecilia Pando de Mercado, a conservative activist. FOPEA and the Association of Argentine Journalists claimed the ruling had a negative impact on freedom of expression.

Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for the Media: On September 26, the government issued a presidential decree amending the 2016 law on public access to information, requiring executive branch approval of organizational structure of the Agency for Access to Public Information. Press groups welcomed the action, but the Association for Civil Rights and other NGOs expressed concern the decree would harm the agency’s autonomy.

As of October the Ministry of Security, acting under a 2016 protocol to protect journalists in cases where their activities entail risks, enacted protective measures, including police protection, in three cases where journalists received threats after conducting investigations related to drug trafficking and trafficking in persons.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The World Bank reported that 70 percent of citizens used the internet in 2016.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. Local NGOs, including CELS, expressed concerns that security-related protocols the Ministry of Security implemented informally beginning in 2016 imposed restrictions on the right to peaceful protest and assembly.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

On January 27, the government reformed its immigration law. Local NGOs expressed concern that new regulations introduced barriers to migrant admission, complicated obtaining legal residency, accelerated deportation procedures, and restricted access to citizenship.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Decisions on asylum petitions may take up to two years to adjudicate.

Bolivia

Executive Summary

Bolivia is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. In 2014, in a process deemed free but whose fairness was questioned by international observers, citizens re-elected President Evo Morales Ayma, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS), for a third term. In 2016 the government held a referendum to allow the president to seek a fourth term in office. Citizens voted the measure down in a process that international observers deemed mostly fair and free.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

The most significant human rights issues included torture; harsh prison conditions; lack of judicial independence and widespread corruption in the law enforcement and judicial system, leading to denial of a fair and timely public trial; prosecutions of political opponents whom some analysts characterized as political prisoners; use of tax audits to punish press critical of the government, censorship, and physical assaults on journalists produced severe restrictions on freedom of the press; selective enforcement of regulations significantly to interfere in the exercise of freedom of assembly and association; corruption at all levels of government, with immunity from prosecution afforded senior officials; societal killings of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, which the government investigated in some cases; trafficking in persons; mob violence couched as vigilante justice; and forced labor and child labor.

Although the government took steps in some cases to prosecute members of the security services and other government officials who committed abuses, inconsistent application of the law and a dysfunctional judiciary led to impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including of the press, the government frequently carried out reprisals against media outlets that expressed dissenting opinions. Government actions to curb criticism created a climate of hostility towards independent journalists and media and resulted in self-censorship of many news sources. Some media sources reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably about its policies, particularly by withholding of government advertising and imposing steep taxes.

Freedom of Expression: The government continued to denounce press critics and independent media sources. The National Association of Bolivia Press (ANP) Monitoring Unit of Freedom of Expression registered 59 verbal and physical aggressions towards reporters and photographers in 2016.

On April 28, in its annual report, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights enumerated several limitations the government placed on the media, including the use by some government officials of the term “the cartel of lies” (“cartel de la mentira”) to discredit independent journalists and news outlets; the situation of journalists who were forced to leave the country in 2016; pressure against notable journalists who criticized the government; and discriminatory use of state advertising, among others.

In January the former presidency minister and current ambassador to Cuba, Juan Ramon Quintana, denounced an “international cartel of lies,” which he claimed operated in the country. According to Quintana, international news sources, including the British publication The Daily Mirror and Chilean news sources, were guilty of trying to “damage the president and the government’s image” through their reporting.

According to the international NGO Freedom House, freedom of press declined during the year. The report cited the government’s threats of legal action, the “cartel of lies” campaign against independent media, and the fact that two journalists, Carlos Valverde and Wilson Garcia, fled the country to avoid government reprisal. In June, Reporters without Borders began a signature collection campaign to pressure the government to restore the fundamental rights of Garcia, former executive director of the print and digital newspaper Sol de Pando, and allow him to return to the country without fear of reprisal from the government.

Press and Media Freedom: According to the Inter American Press Association, Bolivia is one of a number of countries whose government regularly attempts to disqualify the independent press by accusing it of acting as “political opposition,” and a “bearer of false news” responsible for generating social tension. According to Supreme Decree 181, the government is responsible for providing goods and services to all media outlets in a nondiscriminatory manner. There were many credible reports that the government chose not to purchase state advertisements in media outlets they designated as adversarial to the government.

Some media outlets alleged the government pressured news organizations to report favorably about government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The National Press Association and several journalists alleged the government’s retaliatory tactics included withdrawing all of its advertisements, thus denying a significant source of revenue, and launching excessive tax audits, which forced companies to spend unreasonable time and resources to defend themselves. On May 3, the ANP expressed its concern that the government continued to attack independent news outlets and “economically suffocate” media entities that did not cater to the government.

Despite official denials, financial actions on the part of the government appeared to support the claim that the government was trying to control the media narrative. In 2016 the government increased media investment by 22 percent over the previous 12 months. Further, the Ministry of Communication received a 367 million boliviano ($54 million) budget allocation for 2016, an increase of 260 million bolivianos ($38 million) compared with 2015. Finally, the government invested in the creation of the new General Directorate of Social Networks, an entity dedicated specifically to placing government-friendly messages in social media outlets and engaging in online harassment of social media users who criticize the government on their personal pages.

Violence and Harassment: On October 20, members of the Police Operations Tactical Unit assaulted two journalists who were interviewing protesters in Plaza Murillo, a main gathering square in La Paz. According to a complaint the Federation of Press Workers filed with the police commander, the attacks violated legally guaranteed freedoms of assembly and press and resulted in injuries to the journalists.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored journalists, and journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs, fear of prosecution, and fear of losing access to government sources. According to a 2014 study published by the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Unite Foundation, 54 percent of journalists reported being censored, and 83 percent stated they knew of colleagues who had been censored. Of those responding, 59 percent admitted to self-censorship. Approximately 28 percent of journalists were censored for topics that could have caused conflict with the government, 26 percent for reasons that could have affected the interests of advertisers, and 26 percent for reasons that could have exposed journalists to lawsuits.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government systematically monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Government employees faced reprisal for expressing support for initiatives, ideas, and events critical of the MAS administration online and on social media. Reprisals included termination of employment.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 40 percent of the population had internet access in 2016.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although political considerations allegedly influenced academic appointments.

Although the constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, civil society groups, especially, but not limited to, those critical of the government, faced harassment from government officials.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

While the law requires a permit for most demonstrations, the government rarely enforced the provisions, and most protesters demonstrated without obtaining permits. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but occasionally demonstrators carried weapons, including clubs, machetes, firearms, firecrackers, and dynamite. Security forces at times dispersed protest groups carrying weapons or threatening government and private facilities.

Former human rights ombudsman Rolando Villena accused the government and the current ombudsman David Tezanos of violating the constitution by impeding doctors’ right to organize. The minister of health responded to the doctors’ 24-hour work stoppage on April 20 by instructing hospitals and insurance companies to document the names of doctors who went on strike and deduct from their pay an amount corresponding to the time they were absent. The minister of labor announced a day after the strike that any further similar actions would be illegal due to the doctors’ “noncompliance with the necessary steps to hold a strike.”

On May 11, the government issued Supreme Decree 3174, which eliminates the 30 boliviano ($4.38) fee associated with the medical certificate patients need to excuse their absences from work due to illness. While the government justified this action by stating that it would “further the goal of providing quality medical care to all Bolivians,” the president of the Medical Association claimed it was “punishment” for the April 20 strike and the association’s general opposition to the government. On May 17, doctors in the public and private medical sectors went on a 48-hour strike to protest Decree 3174 and the Law of Free Association.

On May 18, the human rights ombudsman introduced a “Popular Action” in the La Paz Departmental Justice Tribunal, arguing the actions of the doctors violated the human rights of their patients. In response, the Medical Association announced a plan to conduct a 72-hour strike. On May 29, the tribunal ruled that the doctors were prohibited from suspending health services to carry out this strike, leading the doctors’ to suspend the strike.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect this right. NGOs continued to be targets of government officials, including the president, vice president, and government ministers, if they operated in a manner perceived as adversarial to the government. Some NGOs alleged that government registration mechanisms were purposefully stringent in order to deter an active civil society.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: The law prohibits travel on election days and on census days and restricts foreign and domestic travel for up to three months as a penalty for persons who do not vote.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees through the National Commission on Refugees. The country has a legal structure and framework to accommodate those seeking refuge and has a registry of refugees and stateless persons.

Employment: Refugees have the right to work once authorities grant their residency status but not while waiting on pending applications.

Durable Solutions: By law refugees have a path to naturalization, and the government assumes 90 percent of the fees associated with this process. As of June the government had granted citizenship to 10 refugees.

Brazil

Executive Summary

Brazil is a constitutional, multiparty republic. In 2014 voters re-elected Dilma Rousseff as president in elections widely considered free and fair. In August 2016 Rousseff was impeached, and the vice president, Michel Temer, assumed the presidency as required by the constitution.

Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces.

The most significant human rights issues included arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful killings; poor and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; violence against and harassment of journalists and other communicators; official corruption at the highest levels of government; societal violence against indigenous populations; societal violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; killings of human rights defenders; and forced labor.

The government prosecuted officials who committed abuses; however, impunity and a lack of accountability for security forces was a problem, and an inefficient judicial process delayed justice for perpetrators as well as victims.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views with minimal restriction, but nongovernmental criminal elements subjected journalists to violence because of their professional activities. Despite national laws prohibiting politically motivated judicial censorship, some local-level courts engaged in judicial censorship. In instances of violence perpetrated by protesters or provocateurs during massive demonstrations, at times security forces injured journalists during crowd-control operations.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were sometimes subject to harassment and physical attacks as a result of their reporting. The Brazilian Association of Radio and Television recorded 174 acts of violence against journalists in 2016, compared with 116 cases in 2015. Law enforcement personnel perpetrated the majority of the attacks during protests related to the 2016 impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff. According to a report by the international NGO Article 19 on violations of freedom of expression published in May, in 2016 there were 31 “serious violations against communicators,” which included four killings, five homicide attempts, and 22 death threats. Communicators encompassed journalists, bloggers, radio broadcasters, and owners of media outlets. Sao Paulo was the state that registered the most violations (16 percent), while the Northeast was the region with the most violations (45 percent). Public authorities such as politicians and law enforcement officials perpetrated 77 percent of the violations, and police did not open investigations in 39 percent of the cases.

In September, Roseli Ferreira Pimentel, the mayor of Santa Luzia–part of metropolitan Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais State–was arrested for ordering the killing of Mauricio Campos Rosa, owner of the newspaper O Grito, in August 2016. According to a local radio station, the motive was likely related to Rosa’s journalistic investigations into corruption involving city councilors and a cooperative responsible for garbage collection. Police arrested Pimentel after discovering that she had diverted 20,000 reais ($6,190) from public funds to pay the perpetrators.

Although there were no reported deaths of journalists in the first half of the year, journalists and bloggers continued to be the victims of serious threats. On March 3, the car of journalist Rodrigo Lima was set on fire outside the offices of the newspaper Diario da Regiao, in Sao Jose do Rio Preto, Sao Paulo State. On March 24, police searched the home of blogger Carlos Eduardo Cairo Guimaraes and seized his laptop, his cell phone, and his wife’s cell phone in an effort to identify the sources of a February story in which he wrote that police would question former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as part of a corruption investigation.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: President Temer and his wife Marcela were accused of censorship when Marcela Temer’s lawyers filed an injunction ordering the national daily newspapers O Globo and Folha de Sao Paulo to remove articles about a person found guilty in October 2016 of blackmailing Marcela Temer following the hacking of her cell phone. Her lawyers argued the articles violated her privacy. On February 13, a judge in Brasilia granted a judicial order that required removal of the articles and prohibited any further publication of material about the case. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, National Association of Magazine Editors, Brazilian Association of Radio and Television, National Association of Newspapers, and Brazilian Press Association called the ruling censorship. Both newspapers appealed the decision; on February 15, an appeals court overturned the injunction against Folha de Sao Paulo. In June Marcela Temer’s lawyers dropped the legal case against both newspapers.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or systematically censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

The 2014 landmark Marco Civil law–considered an internet “bill of rights”–enshrines net neutrality and freedom of expression online and provides for the inviolability and secrecy of user communications online, permitting exceptions only by court order. Nevertheless, several legal and judicial rulings citing Marco Civil had the potential to threaten freedom of expression on the internet. Anonymous speech is explicitly excluded from constitutional protection, which left little privacy protection for those who used the internet anonymously through a pseudonym. Police and prosecutors may obtain data pursuant to three main statutes: the Wiretapping Act, Secrecy of Financial Data Act, and Money Laundering Act.

Private individuals and official bodies took legal action against internet service providers and providers of online social media platforms, such as Google and Facebook, holding them accountable for content posted to or provided by users of the platform. In June WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton participated in a two-day hearing held by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of judicial suspensions in 2016 of WhatsApp and the possibility of retrieving encrypted data related to criminal investigations. As of October no date had been set for trials related to these matters.

The electoral law regulates political campaign activity on the internet. The law prohibits paid political advertising online and in traditional media. During the three months prior to an election, the law also prohibits online and traditional media from promoting candidates and distributing content that ridicules or could offend a candidate.

According to CGI.br, the country’s internet management committee, 60 percent of households had access to the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The government generally respected the right of freedom of peaceful assembly, but police occasionally intervened in citizen protests that turned violent. In May approximately 35,000 antigovernment protesters marched in Brasilia, starting a fire inside the Ministry of Agriculture and damaging other ministerial buildings. Protesters clashed with police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets, resulting in injuries to approximately 50 protesters. On May 24, President Temer, citing the police’s inability to contain the demonstrations, deployed federal troops to restore order in the capital. Temer revoked the deployment the next day.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The National Committee for Refugees cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. By law refugees are provided official documentation, access to legal protection, and access to public services. In May President Temer signed a new migration law, replacing the Foreigner Statue of 1980; the new law was to go into effect in November. Conditions for granting and maintaining asylum under the new law are to be delineated through the regulation process, which was scheduled to be completed by November.

In 2016 a significantly increasing number of Venezuelan economic migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees began arriving in Roraima State in the north. As of August the government had registered 14,400 official requests for asylum from Venezuelans, and 100-150 new applicants were appearing daily.

Temporary Protection: In March the National Immigration Council issued a decree allowing Venezuelans who enter the country via a land border to apply for a two-year residency permit. According to the Federal Police, as of the beginning of November, 2,700 Venezuelans had submitted requests for temporary residence status.

Chile

Executive Summary

Chile is a constitutional multiparty democracy. Chile held presidential elections November 19 in an election observers considered free and fair. Former president and center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera and center-left independent Senator Alejandro Guillier advanced to a December 17 presidential runoff, which was won by Pinera. The country also held concurrent legislative elections.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

The principal human rights issues concerned harsh conditions in some prisons; abuse of minors under the state’s care; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and violence, including police abuse, against indigenous populations.

The government took steps to investigate and prosecute officials who committed abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of speech and press.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 66 percent of the population had access to the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, including access to education and health care. The country recognized approximately 2,000 refugees, including 60 Syrians. On May 25, the government launched the project Chile Reconoce, designed to extend Chilean citizenship to children of refugees and immigrants born in Chile. UNHCR reported 100 children who were at risk of statelessness were able to confirm their Chilean nationality as a result of the project.

Colombia

Executive Summary

Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty republic. In 2014 voters elected Juan Manuel Santos president in elections that observers considered free and fair.

Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces.

The most significant human rights issues included extrajudicial and unlawful killings; reports of torture and arbitrary detention; corruption; rape and abuse of women and children by illegal armed groups; forced abortion carried out by illegal armed groups; and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons. Violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons persisted, as did illegal child labor and killings and other violence against trade unionists.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including judges, mayors, and other local authorities.

The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), formerly the country’s largest guerrilla insurgency group, continued to implement the November 2016 peace accord. The agreement provides for the creation of a Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, including the establishment of a Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP, or JEP in Spanish) designed to investigate and ensure accountability for serious conflict-related crimes. The FARC completed its disarmament on August 15, and former members reincorporated as a political party on September 1. The government and a smaller guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), announced on September 4 a temporary, bilateral ceasefire (the first-ever such agreement during the 50-year conflict with the ELN), which began on October 1 while peace talks continued. There were reports the ELN violated the agreement during the year. The ELN perpetrated armed attacks across the country for much of the year, mostly prior to the temporary ceasefire. In September the government received an offer from the Gulf Clan (formerly known as Clan Usuga or Los Urabenos), the country’s largest criminal organization, to demobilize through a surrender (“sometimiento”) process, or submission to justice. Illegal armed groups and drug trafficking gangs continued to operate, with approximately 2,900 members nationwide. Illegal armed groups, as well as narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of human rights abuses and violent crimes and committed acts of extrajudicial and unlawful killings, political killings, extortion, kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, bombings and use of landmines, restriction on freedom of movement, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and intimidation of journalists, women, and human rights defenders.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Violence and harassment, as well as the criminalization of libel, inhibited freedom of the press, and the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

Violence and Harassment: According to the domestic NGO Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), through December 11, there were 302 incidents of violence and harassment against journalists, including the killing of one journalist, although FLIP noted many other incidents might have gone unreported in the most dangerous areas of the country. During the same period, FLIP reported 128 threats, some aimed simultaneously at more than one journalist. FLIP also reported six journalists were illegally detained, 43 journalists were physically attacked, and 14 were stigmatized or harassed due to their work. According to FLIP, the justice sector brought to trial eight persons involved in four cases of violence against journalists, although investigations continued.

As of July the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office was investigating 46 active cases of crimes against journalists. Eight cases were in the trial stage, and one person was convicted for such crimes.

On September 8, in the case of journalist Flor Alba Nunez Vargas, Juan Camilo Ortiz was sentenced to 47 years in prison, while Ortiz’s alleged accomplice, Jaumeth Albeiro Florez, known by the alias “Chori,” remained at large. The intellectual authors of the crime were unknown.

As of June 30, the National Protection Unit (NPU) provided protection services to 15 journalists. The NPU’s Protocol for Attention to Cases of Journalists and/or Social Communicators, issued in September 2016, aimed to provide more robust risk studies and meet the particular needs of this group. Some NGOs raised concerns about perceived shortcomings in the NPU, such as delays in protection being granted and in the appropriateness of measures to specific threats.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: FLIP alleged that some journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of being sued under libel laws or of being physically attacked, mostly by nongovernment actors. FLIP argued that the high degree of impunity for those who committed aggressions against journalists was also a factor.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. There is no specific law against slandering public officials, and the government did not use prosecution to prevent media from criticizing government policies or public officials. Political candidates, businesspersons, and others, however, publicly threatened to sue journalists for expressing their opinions, alleging defamation or libel. FLIP reported no new cases were filed against journalists for libel or slander as of August 18, although 27 prosecutions of journalists for libel or slander continued from 2013.

Nongovernmental Impact: Members of illegal armed groups sought to inhibit freedom of expression by intimidating, threatening, kidnapping, and killing journalists. National and international NGOs reported local media representatives regularly practiced self-censorship because of threats of violence from these groups.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Due to the general climate of violence and impunity, self-censorship occurred both online and offline, particularly within communities at risk in rural areas.

The 2016 investigation continued into past abuses by the Army Intelligence Unit known as “Andromeda” (see section 1.f.).

The International Telecommunication Union estimated 58 percent of the population used the internet in 2016.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Some NGOs alleged that riot police used excessive force to break up demonstrations. During a three-week strike in Buenaventura that began May 16 and concluded with the signing of an accord with the government on June 6, local social and human rights organizations accused the armed forces and National Police Anti-Riot Squad of using excessive force and alleged that at least 1,300 demonstrators were injured.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Freedom of association was limited by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups against NGOs, indigenous groups, and labor unions.

Although the government does not prohibit membership in most political organizations, membership in organizations that engaged in rebellion against the government, espoused violence, or carried out acts of violence, such as FARC dissidents, the ELN, and other illegal armed groups, was against the law.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although there were exceptions. Military operations and armed conflict in certain rural areas restricted freedom of movement.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: There were no government restrictions on movement within the country. Organized criminal gangs, ELN guerrillas, and other illegal armed groups continued to establish illegal checkpoints on rural roads.

International organizations also reported that illegal armed groups confined rural communities through roadblocks, curfews, car bombs at egress routes, and IEDs in areas where narcotics cultivation and trafficking persisted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between January and October, more than 105,000 persons faced mobility restrictions that limited their access to essential goods and services due to armed incidents and geographical factors. This reflected a 54 percent increase compared with 2016. Additionally, OCHA identified 25 events where humanitarian actors faced restrictions in access to communities by armed groups.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

The armed conflict, especially in remote areas, was the major cause of internal displacement. The government, international organizations, and civil society identified various factors driving displacement, including threats, extortion, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence by illegal armed groups against civilian populations, particularly women and girls. Competition and armed confrontation between and within illegal armed groups for resources and territorial control and confrontations between security forces, guerrillas, and organized criminal gangs, in addition to forced recruitment of children or threats of forced recruitment, were also drivers of displacement. Some NGOs asserted that counternarcotics efforts, illegal mining, and large-scale commercial ventures in rural areas also contributed to displacement.

The NGO Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) reported 12,346 persons displaced from January through July 31. The NGO indicated the departments with the highest numbers of IDPs from mass displacements in the year were Choco (22 displacements), Antioquia (12 displacements), Norte de Santander (10 displacements), and Narino (11 displacements). CODHES also reported six land-rights leaders were killed and five land-rights claimants were killed from January 1 through July 30.

As of July the NPU was providing protection services to 344 land-restitution leaders.

As of November 1, the government reported the Victims’ Unit listed 8,250,270 displaced in the Single Victims Registry, with registrants dating back to 1985. Victims’ Unit statistics showed new displacements occurred primarily in areas where narcotics cultivation and trafficking persisted, especially where guerrilla groups and organized criminal gangs were present.

The Victims’ Unit maintained the Single Victims Registry as mandated by law. Despite improvements in the government registration system, IDPs experienced delays in receiving responses to their displacement claims because of a large backlog of claims built up during several months. Government policy provides for an appeals process in the case of refusals.

The ELN and organized criminal gangs continued to use force, intimidation, and disinformation to discourage IDPs from registering with the government. Guerrilla agents sometimes forced local leaders and community members to demonstrate against government efforts to eradicate illicit crops and forced communities to displace as a form of coerced protest against eradication. International organizations and civil society expressed concern over urban displacement caused by violence stemming from territorial disputes between criminal gangs, some of which had links to larger criminal and narcotics trafficking groups.

The Victims’ Unit cited extortion, recruitment by illegal armed groups, homicides, and physical and sexual violence as the primary causes of intra-urban displacement. UNHCR reported that in some departments displacement disproportionately affected indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups.

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia estimated the number of displaced indigenous persons to be much higher than indicated by government reports, since many indigenous persons did not have adequate access to registration locations due to geographic remoteness, language barriers, or unfamiliarity with the national registration system.

The NGO AFRODES stated that threats and violence against Afro-Colombian leaders and communities continued to cause high levels of forced displacement, especially in the Pacific Coast region. AFRODES and other local NGOs repeatedly expressed concern that large-scale economic projects, such as agriculture and mining, contributed to displacement in their communities.

Fifty-two government agencies are responsible by law for assisting registered IDPs. International organizations and NGOs maintained that the quality of programs providing emergency assistance, shelter, and income generation needed strengthening. Emergency response capacity at the local level was weak, and IDPs continued to experience prolonged periods of vulnerability while waiting for assistance.

A specialized unit of the Attorney General’s Office–established through an agreement with the government’s former social agency, Social Action (which the DPS replaced), the Attorney General’s Office, and the CNP–investigated cases of forced displacement and disappearances.

Dozens of international organizations, international NGOs, and domestic nonprofit groups, including UNHCR, International Organization for Migration, World Food Program, ICRC, and Colombian Red Cross, coordinated with the government to provide emergency relief and long-term assistance to displaced populations.

The Victim’s Unit was unable to provide humanitarian assistance for recent displacements until August due to contracting delays. International organizations and NGOs remained concerned about the slow and insufficient institutional response to displacement. As a result, NGOs took responsibility for providing humanitarian assistance to recently displaced individuals. International organizations and civil society reported that a continuing lack of local capacity to accept registrations in high-displacement areas often delayed by several weeks or months assistance to persons displaced individually or in smaller groups. Humanitarian organizations attributed the delays to a variety of factors, including the lack of personnel, funding, declaration forms, and training. Insecurity in communities affected by the conflict, including areas in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, and Narino, sometimes delayed national and international aid organizations from reaching newly displaced populations.

Despite several government initiatives to enhance IDP access to services and awareness of their rights, in many parts of the country, municipalities did not have the resources or capacity to respond to new displacements and provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Many IDPs continued to live in poverty in unhygienic conditions and with limited access to health care, education, and employment.

Displaced persons also sought protection across international borders. UNHCR stated that Colombia was the country of origin for 360,000 refugees and persons in a refugee-like situation, the majority in Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Panama. UNHCR estimated that between 400 and 500 Colombians crossed into Ecuador every month. The governments of Colombia and Ecuador continued to meet throughout the year regarding the situation of Colombian refugees in Ecuador, and the Colombian government offered a program to assist Colombian refugees in Ecuador who returned to Colombia.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to the government, it had approved 50 applications for refugee status since 2009. Between January 1 and October 2, the government reported it received 400 new applications for refugee status, none of which was approved during the year. Venezuelans represented 85 to 90 percent of applications during the year. Authorities stated that the asylum process took at least one year, during which solicitants were given a permit to stay in the country but were not allowed to work.

Responding to increased migration flows, the government introduced in February registration for border mobility cards that allow Venezuelans the right to enter Colombia temporarily for family or business purposes. The cards do not afford bearers the right to travel beyond border areas, to work, or to reside in Colombia. As of October 31, more than 1.2 million border cards had been issued to Venezuelans. In addition, the government established a “Special Residency Permit” (PEP) to allow Venezuelans who had legally entered Colombia before July 28 to regularize their status and receive work authorization. As of October 31, the last day to register for the PEP, approximately 79,000 PEPs had been issued.

The government reported a continuing rise in the smuggling of migrants from outside the region through Colombia en route to the United States and Canada. According to INTERPOL, as many as 34,000 migrants were detected in the country during the year. INTERPOL and migration officials reported most of the undocumented migrants were Haitians (20,366) and Cubans (8,167), followed by Africans and Asians, and that most entered through Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil. While the government generally provided access to the asylum process for persons who requested international protection, many abandoned their applications and continued on the migration route.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

Venezuela is formally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an increasingly authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the legislative, judicial, citizens’, and electoral branches of government. The Supreme Court determined Nicolas Maduro to have won the 2013 presidential elections amid allegations of pre- and postelection fraud, including government interference, the use of state resources by the ruling party, and voter manipulation. The opposition gained super majority two-thirds control of the National Assembly in the 2015 legislative elections. The executive branch, however, used its control over the Supreme Court (TSJ) to weaken the National Assembly’s constitutional role to legislate, ignore the separation of powers, and enable the president to govern through a series of emergency decrees.

Civilian authorities maintained effective, although politicized, control over the security forces.

Democratic governance and human rights deteriorated dramatically during the year as the result of a campaign of the Maduro administration to consolidate its power. On March 30, the TSJ annulled the National Assembly’s constitutional functions, threatened to abolish parliamentary immunity, and assumed significant control over social, economic, legal, civil, and military policies. The TSJ’s actions triggered large-scale street protests through the spring and summer in which approximately 125 persons died. Security forces and armed progovernment paramilitary groups known as “colectivos” at times used excessive force against protesters. Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported indiscriminate household raids, arbitrary arrests, and the use of torture to deter protesters. The government arrested thousands of individuals, tried hundreds of civilians in military tribunals, and sentenced approximately 12 opposition mayors to 15-month prison terms for alleged failure to control protests in their jurisdictions.

On May 1, President Maduro announced plans to rewrite the 1999 constitution, and on July 30, the government held fraudulent elections, boycotted by the opposition, to select representatives to a National Constituent Assembly (ANC). On August 4, the ANC adopted a “coexistence decree” that effectively neutralized other branches of government. Throughout the year the government arbitrarily stripped the civil rights of opposition leaders to not allow them to run for public office. On October 15, the government held gubernatorial elections overdue since December 2016. The ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) maintained it won 17 of the 23 governors’ seats, although the election was fraught with deficiencies, including a lack of independent, credible international observers, last-minute changes to polling station locations with limited public notice, manipulation of ballot layouts, limited voting locations in opposition neighborhoods, and a lack of technical audit for the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) tabulation. The regime then called for mayoral elections on December 10, with numerous irregularities favoring government candidates.

The most significant human rights issues included extrajudicial killings by security forces, including government sponsored “colectivos”; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; widespread arbitrary detentions; and political prisoners. The government unlawfully interfered with privacy rights, used military courts to try civilians, and ignored judicial orders to release prisoners. The government routinely blocked signals, interfered with the operations, or shut down privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. The law criminalized criticism of the government, and the government threatened violence and detained journalists critical of the government, used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations, and placed legal restrictions on the ability of NGOs to receive foreign funding. Other issues included interference with freedom of movement; establishment of illegitimate institutions to replace democratically elected representatives; pervasive corruption and impunity among all security forces and in other national and state government offices, including at the highest levels; violence against women, including lethal violence; trafficking in persons; and the worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.

The government took no effective action to combat impunity that pervaded all levels of the civilian bureaucracy and the security forces.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and the media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Inter-American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, 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 Expression: 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 years and fines. PSUV officials threatened violence against opposition figures and supporters, in particular during the four months of antiregime protests that began on April 1. On October 2, SEBIN arrested Lenny Josefina Martinez Gonzalez, a worker at Pastor Oropeza hospital in the city of Barquisimeto in Lara State, who, according to the local human rights group Funpaz, photographed women giving birth while in the hospital waiting room. The photographs–indications of the medical crisis–were widely viewed on social media. As of year’s end, authorities had not charged her with crimes.

Press and Media Freedom: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that the media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation. An August report issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted that the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) shut down 24 radio stations and ordered internet service providers to block certain digital outlets during the April-July protests.

The law prohibits 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 threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.

Despite such laws, President Maduro and the ruling PSUV used the nearly 600 government-owned or controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. Maduro regularly referred to Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles as insane on live television, while PSUV first vice president and ANC member Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to bully journalists and media outlets.

The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government greater authority to regulate the content and structure of the radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; CONATEL oversees the law’s application. Minister of Communications and Information Ernesto Villegas highlighted this power during an August 30 interview, declaring that “operating licenses are not a right” and that the government may elect to deny them without providing justification.

The government continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal CualEl NacionalEl Nuevo PaisLa Patilla, and Globovision. A court found the online newsource La Patilla responsible for moral damage and ordered it to pay the equivalent of $500,000 in bolivars to Diosdado Cabello. The remaining outlets were awaiting trial at the end of the year.

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. Ultima Hora, a regional news outlet, and Tal Cual, a national newspaper, stopped printing in August and November, respectively, the latest nongovernment-owned media outlets to cease production due to lack of access to dollars to purchase newsprint from the government. Other sources, such as regional newspaper La Prensa, opted to print fewer pages or to print weekly rather than daily publications. The National Press Workers Union (SNTP) estimated that, of 115 print news outlets that operated in the country in 2013, 93 remained in operation.

The NGO Public Space reported 887 cases of violations of freedom of expression between January and September–a nearly three-fold increase over 2016. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. State-owned and state-influenced media provided almost continuous progovernment programming. In addition, private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts (“cadenas”) throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of government achievements. According to the online tracking program Citizens Monitoring, run by the civil society network Legislative Monitor, between January and October the government implemented more than 160 hours of national cadenas featuring President Maduro, interrupting regular broadcasts. Both Maduro and other ruling-party officials utilized mandatory broadcast time to campaign for progovernment candidates. Opposition candidates generally did not have access to media broadcast time.

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.

The Venezuelan Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) reported 539 violations and assaults on media offices, press equipment and tools, journalists, and media employees from January to August. The report also stated that IPYS recorded at least 280 cases of journalists affected by state-sponsored violence from January to August. On February 25, the Public Ministry charged Santiago Guevara, a University of Carabobo professor, with “betrayal of the homeland” after he published a series of editorials on the nation’s economic crisis.

According to IPYS, during the four months of antiregime protests, journalists reported 108 assaults against journalists by security forces, 40 injuries due to tear gas canisters, and 11 gunshot injuries. The August OHCHR report on the protests noted that authorities arrested an estimated 60 journalists, deleting their video footage before releasing them within a few hours, and conducted a smear campaign against journalists, including death threats, that caused a number of them to leave the country.

Government officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country. On March 31, GNB officers attacked Elyangelica Gonzalez, a reporter for Univision Noticias and the Colombian-based station Caracol Radio, while she reported outside the Supreme Court.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: In its 2016 report, IPYS noted the government’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media. The NGO Public Space reported 50 cases involving censorship as of September.

The government also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL having not renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.

On February 17, CONATEL banned the international news network CNN En Espanol, labeling its coverage “war propaganda” after the station broadcast a story about Venezuelan visa fraud allegations. On August 23, CONATEL forced two Colombian television stations, Caracol TV and RCN, off the air after they reported on former attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz’s corruption allegations against President Maduro. On August 25, CONATEL shut the nationally broadcast radio stations 92.9 Tu FM and Magica 99.1 FM, immediately replacing them with progovernment outlets. According to SNTP statistics, using this method CONATEL closed 49 radio stations and six television stations through August.

The government controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with government-owned or government-friendly media.

Libel/Slander Laws: Government officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy. In June President Maduro announced he would use slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations he was responsible for protest-related deaths. As of December Maduro had not acted on these threats.

National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions to be necessary in the interests of public order or security. The government exercised control over the press through the public 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.”

During the year President Maduro renewed 11 times the “state of exception” he first invoked in January 2016, citing a continuing economic emergency, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise guaranteed in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires National Assembly endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The National Assembly continued systematically to refuse to ratify each renewal, and the Supreme Court annulled each refusal, reasoning that the assembly’s “contempt” status made its failure to endorse the renewal “unconstitutional.” According to Human Rights Watch, the “state of exception” negatively affected the right to freedom of association and expression.

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.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The executive branch exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and persecution of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted authorities in locating the users. Free Access cited arrests of Twitter users during the April-July protests.

The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited 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. In 2016 IPYS reported that local internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked at least 42 internet domains.

CONATEL’s director, Andres Eloy Mendez, appointed in October 2016, repeatedly declared in press statements that the government did not block websites, although officials ordered internet service providers to block certain digital outlets. Mendez reiterated the claims of his predecessor that CONATEL’s role was to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the government continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the government’s official rate. The government-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. The government used Twitter hashtags to attain “trending” status for official propaganda and employed hundreds of employees to manage and disseminate official government accounts. At least 65 official government accounts used Twitter to promote the ruling PSUV party.

Intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous “patriotas cooperantes” (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the government, and senior government officials used personal information gathered by cooperating patriots to intimidate government critics and human rights defenders.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 60 percent of the population used the internet in 2016, the latest figure available.

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 providing government subsidies significantly below the annual inflation rate to those universities. Autonomous universities, which are partially funded by the government, received considerably less than the amounts they requested. Furthermore, budgetary allocations were based on figures not adequately adjusted for inflation and covered expenses only through March. On September 26, the National University Council, the government regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy.

On August 9, University Education Minister Hugbel Roa announced that the “carnet de la patria,” a new government-issued social benefits card provided primarily to government supporters, would be required for enrollment in public universities, affecting approximately 305,000 students.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides for this right, but the government generally repressed or suspended it. The Law on Political Parties, Public Gatherings, and Manifestations and the Organic Law for Police Service and National Bolivarian Police Corps regulate the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize such laws that enable the government to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the laws also allowed the government to criminalize organizations that were critical of the government. Protests and marches require government authorization in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.”

As part of the “states of exception” in place throughout the year in municipalities bordering Colombia and imposed via an economic emergency decree, the government ordered the suspension of the constitutional right to meet publicly or privately without obtaining permission in advance as well as the right to demonstrate peacefully and without weapons.

The political opposition organized frequent nationwide protests from April 1 to July 31 demanding elections, respect for constitutional norms, freedom for political prisoners, and effective government action to relieve severe economic and humanitarian crises. Demonstrations, which involved marches, sit-ins, and at times coordinated blockages of the country’s infrastructure, frequently attracted thousands of participants. According to Foro Penal, security forces arrested more than 5,000 persons during protests between April 1 and July 31; of those detained, 1,381 remained in custody at the end of December.

Violent security force repression, often coordinated with armed “colectivos,” resulted in thousands of injuries and more than 125 deaths. On April 5, GNB officers attacked student protesters at the University of Carabobo in Carabobo State and injured dozens of students, including one who was shot in the back.

The government blamed the protest violence and deaths on opposition “terrorists.” On July 30, several PNB officers were injured when a pyrotechnic/gasoline device detonated in Caracas. The device appeared placed and timed to ignite while a column of PNB on motorcycles was passing. Video of the explosion was similar to that of a July 10 pyrotechnic explosion that also targeted security forces. The opposition did not denounce the attack.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the government did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections. In February the TSJ suspended all elections at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), citing a complaint submitted to them by four students and their attorney. According to credible sources, the students were regime supporters seeking to halt processes that were almost certain to elect students politically inclined toward the country’s opposition. On February 17, UCV student leaders nonetheless held elections, electing vocal opposition supporter Rafaela Requesens as head of the student government.

The president’s 2016 “state of exception” decree called on the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” that the funding is used with “political purposes or for destabilization.” There were no reports that the government implemented the decree.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government did not respect these rights.

The government did not comply with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited for years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While travelling to the commission, particularly vulnerable groups, such as women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks, such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by authorities at checkpoints and other locations.

In addition to arbitrary deportations, Colombians expelled from the country complained of abuses by security forces. The IACHR reported that many deported Colombians alleged Venezuelan security forces used excessive force to evict them from their homes, which were subsequently destroyed, and that security agents subjected them to physical abuse and forceful separation from their families. The government implemented OLP security measures and increased the presence of security forces in Tachira State on the Colombian border.

While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women.

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

In-country Movement: The government systematically deployed thousands of security forces and crowd control vehicles to hinder movement and restrict access to designated protest rally points in Caracas during spring and summer protests. The government also restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders from moving around the country and traveling internationally. Others were effectively forced into self-exile.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. UNHCR estimated there were approximately 7,860 recognized refugees and 173,000 persons in need of international protection in the country. The majority of such persons remained without any protection. Most of the Colombians had not accessed procedures for refugee status determination due to the inefficiency of the process. UNHCR reported that few persons in need of international protection were legally recognized as refugees.

Access to Basic Services: Colombian asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant challenges to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but did not grant them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an NGO dedicated to providing assistance to refugees, Colombian asylum seekers said nationwide antigovernment, antiregime protests further hindered their access to basic services and movement to and from service centers.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future