Mexico is a multiparty federal republic with an elected president and bicameral legislature. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement won the presidential election in July 2018 in generally free and fair multiparty elections and took office in December 2018. Citizens also elected members of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, governors, state legislators, and mayors.
The National Guard and federal, state, and municipal police are responsible for enforcing the law and maintaining order. The National Guard, created in March, is a civilian institution reporting to the Secretariat of Public Security and Civil Protection. The Federal Police are scheduled to be subsumed into the National Guard by 2020, but in the interim remain under the Public Security Secretariat and National Security Commission. The bulk of National Guard personnel consist of seconded army and navy elements that have an option to return to their services after five years. State preventive police report to state governors, while municipal police report to mayors. The Secretariat of National Defense and Secretariat of the Navy also play a role in domestic security, particularly in combating organized criminal groups. The constitution grants the president the authority to use the armed forces for the protection of internal and national security, and the courts upheld the legality of the armed forces’ role in undertaking these activities in support of civilian authorities. The National Migration Institute, under the authority of the Interior Secretariat, is responsible for enforcing migration laws and protecting migrants. Although authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, there were instances in which elements of security forces acted independently of civilian control.
Significant human rights issues included reports of the involvement by police, military, and other government officials and illegal armed groups in unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, and torture; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions in some prisons; impunity for violence against human rights defenders and journalists; violence targeting persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.
Impunity for human rights abuses remained a problem, with extremely low rates of prosecution for all crimes. The government’s federal statistics agency (INEGI) estimated 94 percent of crimes were either unreported or not investigated.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations were privately owned. The government had minimal presence in the ownership of news media but remained a significant source of advertising revenue for many media organizations, which at times influenced coverage. Media monopolies, especially in small markets, could constrain freedom of expression.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were killed or subject to physical and cyberattacks, harassment, and intimidation (especially by state agents and transnational criminal organizations) in response to their reporting. This limited media’s ability to investigate and report, since many of the reporters who were killed covered crime, corruption, and local politics. According to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists, as of August 31, 10 journalists had been killed because of their reporting.
Perpetrators of violence against journalists acted with impunity. According to the NGO Article 19, as of February the impunity rate for crimes against journalists was 99 percent. In 2018 there were 544 attacks against journalists, according to Article 19. Since its creation in 2010, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Journalists (FEADLE), a unit in the Attorney General’s Office, secured only 10 convictions for various related crimes, and only one for murder, in the 1,077 cases it investigated. Only 16 percent of the cases FEADLE investigated were taken to court. As of September, FEADLE had not opened any new cases, reportedly in an effort to focus on bringing existing investigations to trial.
Government officials believed organized crime to be behind most of the attacks against journalists, but NGOs asserted there were instances when local government authorities participated in or condoned the acts. According to Article 19, in 2018, 42 percent of physical attacks against journalists originated with public officials. Although 75 percent of those came from state or local officials, federal officials and members of the armed forces were also suspected of being behind 7 percent of attacks against journalists.
There were no developments in the 2017 killing of Miroslava Breach, a prominent newspaper correspondent who reported on organized crime and corruption. In March, Undersecretary for Human Rights Alejandro Encinas stated the federal government was “aiding” the state prosecutor in the case, ultimately affirming it would remain with state prosecutors.
In January the UN Human Rights Committee declared the government responsible for violating journalist Lydia Cacho’s human rights, including subjecting her to acts of torture in 2005 after she exposed government corruption and a pedophile ring, and for shortcomings in the investigation. In response, on April 11, FEADLE issued arrest warrants against former Puebla governor Mario Marin Torres, Kamel Nacif, Juan Sanchez Moreno, and Hugo Adolfo Karam for their role as masterminds of the acts of torture against Cacho. As of September all four remained fugitives. In July, two assailants entered Cacho’s home, poisoned her dogs, and stole research material–including 10 hard drives containing information on pedophile rings, both the one she exposed in 2005 and a new case she was working on. Article 19 referred to the incident as “an act of reprisal for her work as a defender of free speech.”
In August, Cacho fled the country due to fear for her safety, declaring herself “in a situation of forced displacement.” Article 19 stated, “Lydia Cacho was forced to leave the country in the face of not receiving the minimal conditions of security to carry out her job and continue the process of seeking justice for her arbitrary detention and torture perpetrated in 2005.”
Between 2012 and September 2019, the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists received 976 requests for protection for journalists and human rights defenders. Since 2018 five journalists with protective measures from the Mechanism were killed, including two during the year. In January, Rafael Murua, under Mechanism protection, was shot and killed in Baja California Sur. Police arrested three individuals in connection with the case. In May journalist Francisco Romero was beaten, shot, and killed in Quintana Roo. He had received threats–including from local police–after exposing corruption of local authorities. Both victims had government-issued panic buttons. After these killings, the OHCHR representative in Mexico, Jan Jarab, said the Mechanism merited a “deep reflection” and added, “These cases show that violence against human rights defenders and journalists is deeply rooted and structural changes are needed.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights groups reported some state and local governments censored the media. Journalists reported altering their coverage due to a lack of protection from the government, attacks against members of the media and newsrooms, and threats or retributions against their families, among other reasons. There were reports of journalists practicing self-censorship due to threats from criminal groups and government officials.
In March 2018 Article 19 reported the government, despite reductions in its advertising budgets, continued to have a strong financial impact and influence on the largest media companies.
Libel/Slander Laws: There are no federal criminal laws against defamation, libel, or slander; however, eight states have criminal laws on these acts. In Baja California Sur, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, and Yucatan, the crime of defamation is prosecuted, with penalties ranging from three days to five years in prison and fines ranging from five to 500 days of minimum salary for committing defamation or slander, both considered “crimes against honor.” Slander is punishable under the criminal laws of the states of Campeche, Colima, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, Yucatan, and Zacatecas with sentences ranging from three months to six years in prison and monetary fines. Five states have laws that restrict the publishing of political caricatures or “memes.” These laws were seldom applied.
In May the Supreme Court struck down a law in the state of Nayarit penalizing slander. The court ruled the law violated freedom of expression.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized criminal groups exercised a grave and increasing influence over media outlets and reporters, threatening individuals who published critical views of crime groups. Concerns persisted about the use of physical violence by organized criminal groups in retaliation for information posted online, which exposed journalists, bloggers, and social media users to the same level of violence faced by traditional journalists.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or block or filter online content. Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report categorized the country’s internet as partly free, noting concerns about illegal surveillance practices in the country and violence against online reporters.
According to Freedom House, the country remained very dangerous for journalists, and at least four digital reporters were killed in 2018. Digital media journalists covering sensitive stories such as crime, corruption, and human rights violations experienced physical and technical violence.
NGOs alleged provisions in secondary laws threatened the privacy of internet users by forcing telecommunication companies to retain data for two years, providing real-time geolocation data to police, and allowing authorities to obtain metadata from private communications companies without a court order. While the Supreme Court upheld the provisions, it noted the need for authorities to obtain a judicial warrant to access user metadata.
Article 19 noted that according to Google Transparency reports between 2012 and June 2018, the executive and judiciary branches filed 111 requests to remove content from the web, including two instances in which the reason cited was “criticism to government.”
According to Freedom House, “No significant advances were made to investigate” illegal surveillance that took place in 2017 via a sophisticated surveillance software program, Pegasus, presumably targeting human rights defenders, anticorruption activists, and prominent journalists.
In March the Guadalajara-based Jesuit university ITESO released a study detailing “attacks and smear campaigns aimed at journalists and media outlets who have a critical stance against the government.” The study suggested the creators of the attacks and campaigns employed a massive use of bots that created artificial trending topics on Twitter to invite users to defend President Lopez Obrador and attack his critics.
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. There were some reports of security forces using excessive force against demonstrators. Twelve states have laws that restrict public demonstrations.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Federal law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: There were numerous instances of armed groups limiting the movements of migrants, including by kidnappings and homicides.
The NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights identified 12 incidents of forced internal displacement through June. These episodes took place in the states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Michoacan, Oaxaca, and Sinaloa. The commission attributed the displacement of 10,947 persons in 2018 to armed attacks against civilians in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Sinaloa. Of the 25 episodes in 2018, 20 were caused by violence generated by armed organized groups, such as drug cartels, affecting 6,156 persons. The remaining five episodes were caused by land conflicts, social and ethnic violence, or local political disputes, affecting 5,335 individuals. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, made efforts to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of displaced persons.
The OHCHR reported that the approximately 3,500 Tzotziles indigenous individuals who returned to their homes in the state of Chiapas did so only because the conditions at the shelter where they were staying were worse than the danger they faced upon return. During a 2017 border dispute between two municipalities, more than 5,000 Tzotziles indigenous individuals were displaced.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The press and NGOs reported victimization of migrants by criminal groups and in some cases by police, immigration officers, and customs officials. In September the Migrant Organizations Network (Redodem, a group of NGOs that shelter migrants) reported that in 2018, federal, state, and municipal police, as well as military forces, committed at least 865 crimes against migrants. Redodem registered 542 robberies committed by authorities, 131 cases of abuse of authority, 83 extortions, 46 injuries, 26 acts of intimidation, eight illegal detentions, and six acts of bribery, among others. According to the report, federal police agents committed 297 incidents, followed by municipal police (266), the state police (179), migration agents (102), the army (18), and the navy (four).
Government and civil society sources reported Central American gang presence spread farther into the country and threatened migrants who had fled the same gangs in their home countries. There were media reports that criminal groups kidnapped undocumented migrants to extort money from their relatives or force them into committing criminal acts on the groups’ behalf.
The government cooperated with the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: Federal law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary protection. The government has an established procedure for determining refugee status and providing protections. From January to August 10, the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees received 42,788 petitions, a 230 percent increase over the same period in 2018.
The government worked with UNHCR to improve access to asylum and the asylum procedure, reception conditions for vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers, and integration (access to school and work) for those approved for refugee and complementary protection status.
Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In May voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.
The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police (PNP) is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, while additional security forces are responsible for border control and aero naval security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: harsh prison conditions; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including through censorship and criminal libel lawsuits; and forced child labor.
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government generally respected this right, but journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel/slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: In July under the Cortizo administration, security guards from the National Assembly expelled a known television personality from the National Assembly media balcony to prevent her from covering a migration bill. Two days later the National Assembly budget committee met behind closed doors to avoid press coverage, which was not standard practice. Both actions resulted in complaints from opposition deputies and civil society leaders.
Libel/Slander Laws: According to local media, former president Ricardo Martinelli submitted 50 libel/slander lawsuits against local media, 26 of which were issued after he was declared not guilty on August 9 of illegal wiretapping. Reports stated Martinelli’s civil lawsuits against daily newspapers El Siglo, La Prensa, and Mi Diario included media employees whose work was not related to judicial or political reporting (editorial cartoonists and graphic designers).
In May Corprensa (which owns La Prensa and Mi Diario) was found guilty in a libel/slander lawsuit filed by former first lady Marta de Martinelli. The corporation was sentenced to pay $25,000 balboas ($25,000) in damages and 6,000 balboas ($6,000) to cover legal expenses.
On September 2, Martinelli filed a civil lawsuit against TVN Information vice president and television host Sabrina Bacal, seeking one million balboas (one million dollars) in damages for calling him a thief during a public interview.
Following these legal actions, on September 3, media associations Journalism National Council and the Journalists Forum for Freedom of Expression and Information issued a joint statement requesting the Judicial Branch and Public Ministry keep “vigilant” regarding the “growing trend to abuse the justice system, using it as a censorship, intimidation, and persecution tool against journalists and media.”
Media organizations and media leaders claimed these lawsuits hindered reporting on specific cases and individuals and were likely intended to financially damage media corporations.
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.
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 https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
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. The Panamanian National Office for Refugees (ONPAR) had a backlog of more than 15,000 cases and usually approved only 1 percent of asylum requests. ONPAR processed asylum applications and then referred applications to the National Commission for Refugees, an interagency committee that decides the final status of every case. The process of obtaining refugee status currently takes two to three years, during which only asylum seekers admitted into the process had the right to work. The current asylum application process can take up to one year for applicants to even be admitted into the system, which was not a guarantee of asylum approval.
The government approved and implemented the protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection; however, the institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate was pending implementation approval.
The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to migrants. At least one camp in the Darien did not have regular access to potable water and at times presented unsanitary conditions, especially when dealing with high volumes of migrants. The government reported continued migrations of persons from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia, India, and Africa.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons living in the country were possibly in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.
Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained that they faced discriminatory hiring practices. In an effort to prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work; however, beginning in May those who had been formally admitted into the asylum process could request a one-year work permit that could be renewed as many times as needed.
Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies. As a result of the long wait times to be entered into the asylum system, many applicants encountered difficulties accessing basic services such as health care, financial services, and appropriate housing.
Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.
The government continued to work with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. The governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, continued to use a mobile registry office on their common border to register indigenous Ngabe and Bugle seasonal workers who travelled between Costa Rica and Panama and whose births had not registered in either country.
Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government, and standing up a parallel, illegitimate legislative body alongside the existing elected one. On January 10, the term of former president Nicolas Maduro ended. He sought to remain in power based on his claimed “victory” in the 2018 presidential elections widely condemned as neither free nor fair, a claim not accepted by the democratically elected National Assembly (AN). On January 23, Juan Guaido, as president of the National Assembly, assumed the role of interim president pursuant to the provisions of the constitution related to vacancies. Former president Maduro, with the backing of hundreds of Cuban security force members, refused to cede control over the instruments of state power, preventing interim president Guaido from exercising authority within the country. In the 2015 legislative elections, opposition political parties gained supermajority (two-thirds) control of the AN. The former Maduro regime, however, used its control over the Supreme Court (TSJ) to create the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly (ANC) that placed the AN in contempt, usurped its constitutional role to legislate, and weakened the constitution’s separation of powers principle.
Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces declined and was deeply politicized. The National Guard (GNB)–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps (CICPC), which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), which collects intelligence within the country and abroad and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The Venezuelan National Police (PNB) reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces of the former Maduro regime, including colectivos (regime-sponsored armed groups); forced disappearances; torture by security forces; arbitrary detention by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; and lack of judicial independence. The former Maduro regime restricted free expression and the press by routinely blocking signals and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. Libel, incitement, and inaccurate reporting were subject to criminal charges. The former Maduro regime used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations and repressed freedom of assembly. Other issues included: intimidation, harassment, and abuse of AN members, including denial of due process and parliamentary immunity; pervasive corruption and impunity among all Maduro-aligned security forces and in other national and state regime offices, including at the highest levels; trafficking in persons; violence against indigenous persons; and the worst forms of child labor, which the former regime made minimal efforts to eliminate.
There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, but the former regime at the national, state, and local levels took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses, and there was impunity for such abuses. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not provide information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police. The former Maduro regime backed by Cuban security force members refused to cede power, preventing the interim government from taking action.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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 media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned former regime 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. In 2017 the illegitimate ANC gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the former regime stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. In April Espacio Publico reported 24 persons were arrested in 2018 for online criticism of the regime.
On June 1, members of the DGCIM arrested Karen Palacios Perez, a clarinetist, for “instigating hate.” Palacios posted tweets critical of the regime after losing her position with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for signing a petition in opposition to Maduro. On July 16, Palacios was released from prison, one month after a judge ordered her immediate release.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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 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 of 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, Maduro and the regime-aligned United Socialist Party (PSUV) used the nearly 600 former regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of 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; the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) oversees the law’s application.
The former Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. In June the TSJ ordered La Patilla to pay 30 billion bolivares ($1.4 million) to ANC president Cabello for “moral damage and injury” for reprinting an article by the Spanish newspaper ABC that indicated Cabello was under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking.
Espacio Publico reported 522 violations of freedom of expression between January and April, a 314 percent increase compared with the same period in 2018 and the second highest figure since the organization began tracking cases in 2002. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. The former Maduro regime-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous proregime 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 former regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from accessing the AN to cover the legislative body’s debates and activities. NGOs noted that state regime-owned internet service provider CANTV also routinely blocked commercial streaming and web searches during Interim President Guaido’s speeches and during weekly AN sessions.
The former regime detained 39 journalists in the first three months of the year, up from 22 detentions during all of 2018, according to NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS). On March 11, SEBIN agents detained journalist Luis Carlos Diaz and confiscated equipment, following his reporting on nationwide blackouts that struck the country in early March, according to media reports. On his weekly television program, ANC president Cabello accused Diaz of being involved in a conspiracy to sabotage the country’s electrical system. After being charged with “instigating crimes,” Diaz was released, although he was prohibited from leaving the country or making public statements.
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 leaders of the former Maduro regime 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. The national journalists’ union reported 244 attacks on journalists from January to June. Former president Maduro and regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Former Maduro regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the former Maduro regime’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 regime reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The former regime 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’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the local journalists’ union (SNTP), print news outlets closed due to the former Maduro regime’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. National and regional newspapers went out of print for lack of supplies, especially newsprint, including national newspaper El Nacional, El Regional of Zulia, El Aragueno of Aragua, El Luchador of Bolivar, and Panorama of Zulia.
The former Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.
Libel/Slander Laws: Regime-aligned officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy. Maduro did not act on his 2017 announcement that he would use slander law to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The former Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental 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 regime-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year former President Maduro renewed four times the “state of exception” he first invoked in 2016, citing a continuing economic emergency, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires AN 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 AN 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 rights 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 media members.
The former Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The former regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression 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 regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted former Maduro regime authorities in locating users.
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 service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. IPYS reported that in the first six months of the year, private and regime-controlled internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked access to 48 webpages. Seventy percent of the censored domains during this period belonged to social media platforms and news outlets, including NTN24, VIVOplay, El Pitazo, VPItv, El Nacional, Aporrea, and Noticia al dia.
CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the former Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the former regime’s official rate. The former regime-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. According to Reporters Without Borders, on January 21, shortly after an attempted uprising by a military unit in Zulia State that was widely covered on social networks and by online media outlets, there were several internet cuts in the region, affecting YouTube and Google Search users in particular, combined with restrictions on access to Twitter and Instagram. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Periscope services were all temporarily blocked, according to NetBlocks.
Regime-aligned 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 former regime, and senior former Maduro regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused for actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.
In February proregime Twitter accounts published a database of opposition sympathizers’ personal data, which was the result of a former regime-linked phishing operation.
There were no substantiated reports of former Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the former regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the former regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to media reports, universities ran deep deficits, receiving less than 10 percent of the funds they budgeted to cover operating costs. In 2017 the National University Council, the government’s regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy.
The former Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities, including the admissions process.
In August the TSJ ordered the Central University of Venezuela to hold university elections in six months. The ruling, which applied to eight other public and private universities as well, stipulates that the elected candidate must win in at least three of the five electoral sectors (teachers, students, graduates, administrative staff, and laborers) and must receive an absolute majority of votes. Students and university leaders called the ruling an attack on university autonomy, in violation of the constitution, and said it would lead to the installation of regime-aligned sympathizers at the heads of universities.
The former regime continued its practice, announced in 2018, of educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria (homeland card), a regime-issued social benefits card provided primarily to regime supporters (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation).
The constitution provides for this right, but the former Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the former regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allowed the former regime to criminalize organizations that were critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the former regime in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, and electricity. The political opposition and civil society organized marches to support Interim President Juan Guaido and demand a transitional government and new presidential elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict documented 10,477 protests in the first six months of the year, more than double the number in the same period of 2018. According to the OHCHR, between January and May, a total of 66 persons died during protests; some of these incidents were marked by an alleged excessive use of force by FAES, the GNB, PNB, and armed colectivos. Security forces detained more than 1,300 persons during protests between January and May, according to Foro Penal.
During a July 2 protest in Tachira State, 16-year-old Rufo Chacon was blinded after police forces fired 52 rubber pellets at his face. According to media reports, a police investigation found that security forces moved to repress the protest without warning when they fired rubber bullets into the crowd. Former Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab announced that authorities charged two police officers with cruel treatment in the case.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the former Maduro regime 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.
A 2016 presidential 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.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the former Maduro regime did not respect these rights.
On February 22, the former regime closed its borders with Aruba, Brazil, and Colombia to prevent the entry of international aid. Media reported the borders with Aruba and Brazil were reopened on May 10 and partially reopened with Colombia one month later.
In July the former Maduro regime announced the deployment of a special migration police unit in Tachira State, on the border with Colombia. Although some NGOs expressed concern the former regime would use the unit to restrict international travel of select individuals, the former regime asserted the force would essentially be customs and border patrol units. The former regime declared the migration police would provide citizen security at migration points and established 72 points of control to monitor the border situation and dispel what it called myths regarding a supposed in-country migration crisis.
Security forces often used excessive force to control residents in states along the border with Colombia, with particular violence perpetrated by colectivos against Tachira State citizens in late February.
While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women. NGOs reported Venezuelans crossing through informal border crossings controlled by armed groups faced significant protection risks, including gender-based violence. Individuals were often forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing or be indebted to those controlling them, exposing them to risks of exploitation, harassment, and sexual violence, as well as recruitment into drug trafficking and other armed groups.
See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
In-country Movement: The former regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on former regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports after years of delays. Some applicants reportedly paid several thousands of U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The former regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and AN deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
Exile: In contrast with 2018, there were no cases of citizens denied the right to return.
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 traveling 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.
The former regime did not cooperate 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.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. 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 difficulties to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Former regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In June CONARE announced the creation of a new border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.