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Colombia

Executive Summary

Colombia is a constitutional, multiparty republic. Presidential and legislative elections were held in 2018. Voters elected Ivan Duque Marquez president in a second round of elections that observers considered free and fair and the most peaceful in decades.

The Colombian National Police force is responsible for internal law enforcement and is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. The Migration Directorate, part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the immigration authority. The Colombian National Police shares law enforcement investigatory duties with the Attorney General’s Corps of Technical Investigators. In addition to its responsibility to defend the country against external threats, the army shares limited responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order within the country. For example, military units sometimes provided logistical support and security for criminal investigators to collect evidence in high-conflict or remote areas. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of torture and arbitrary detention by government security forces and illegal armed groups; rape and abuse of women and children, as well as unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by illegal armed groups; criminalization of libel; widespread corruption; violence against and forced displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; 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, although some cases continued to experience long delays.

Illegal armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), and drug-trafficking gangs, continued to operate. 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, extortion, and other abuses, such as kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, bombings, restriction on freedom of movement, sexual violence, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and threats of violence against journalists, women, and human rights defenders. The government investigated these actions and prosecuted those responsible to the extent possible.

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. 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 August 14, there were 98 threats against journalists, some involving more than one target, for a total of 126 journalists affected by threats. FLIP reported 304 incidents of violence or harassment, including 80 journalists who were physically assaulted. According to FLIP, one journalist, Jose Abelardo Liz, was killed in connection with his work. Liz, an indigenous radio journalist, worked for a radio station in Corinto, Cauca. FLIP also reported that between January and August, no journalists were illegally detained. The Attorney General’s Office reported that from January through August, they obtained seven convictions in cases of homicides of journalists.

As of July 31, the NPU provided protection services to 182 journalists. Some NGOs raised concerns about perceived shortcomings in the NPU, such as delays in granting protection and the appropriateness of measures for addressing specific threats.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: FLIP alleged some journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of being sued under libel laws or of being physically attacked, mostly by nongovernment actors. FLIP asserted that the high degree of impunity for those who committed aggressions against journalists was also a factor. In May media reported that members of the intelligence community inappropriately followed, monitored, and profiled 52 journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. The government did not use prosecution to prevent media outlets 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 that through August 22, there were 88 cases alleging libel or slander affecting 98 journalists.

Nongovernmental Impact: Members of illegal armed groups inhibited 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. For example, media reported that eight journalists in the department of Magdalena received death threats from the ELN in August.

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 impunity and violence in some areas, self-censorship occurred both online and offline, particularly within rural communities.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices without punishment. Revenues from transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, exacerbated corruption.

Corruption: Through September the Attorney General’s Office registered 30,724 allegations related to corruption and registered 4,070 formal corruption charges. In April the comptroller general, the attorney general, and the inspector general established a unit to monitor funds allocated as part of the COVID-19 response, following allegations of corruption. The Attorney General’s Office announced investigations into more than 40 public officials, including the minister of agriculture, governors, and mayors, for corruption related to the administration of contracts for COVID-19 emergency support.

Financial Disclosure: By law public officials must file annual financial disclosure forms with the tax authority. The information is not made public. The law states that persons who intend to hold public office or work as contractors for the government for more than three months shall submit a statement of assets and income as well as information on their private economic activity. The human resources chief in each entity is responsible for verifying the information submitted. Congress maintained a website on which members could voluntarily post their financial information.

Ecuador

Executive Summary

Ecuador is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and unicameral legislature. In 2017 voters elected President Lenin Moreno from the ruling party Alianza PAIS (Proud and Sovereign Fatherland) and chose members of the National Assembly in elections that were generally free and fair.

The National Police maintains internal security and law enforcement and is under the authority of the Ministry of Government. The military is under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense and is responsible for external security. Police and military forces share responsibility for border enforcement, with the military also having limited domestic security responsibilities. The military may complement police operations to maintain and control public order when expressly mandated. Migration officers are civilians and report to the Ministry of Government. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces allegedly committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of torture and abuse by police officers and prison guards; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; the existence of criminal libel laws; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women and children; and the use of child labor.

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

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, but other laws restrict this right. Experts cautioned that restrictive provisions to journalistic work found in a 2013 communication law, reformed in February 2019, remained in effect, including Article 5, which characterizes media and communications as a public service, not a right, and a provision requiring all journalists to hold university degrees. Restrictive provisions found in other laws, such as punishing opinions as slander, which carries a prison term of six months to two years, also remained in force.

Human rights activists noted that national curfews and movement restrictions enacted during the October 2019 protests, and in place to varying degrees since March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meant for security and public health reasons, in effect set a series of de facto restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of movement (see section 2.b.).

Freedom of Speech: Individuals could usually discuss matters of general interest publicly or privately without reprisal. The law prohibits citizens from using “discrediting expressions,” treated as a misdemeanor with a 15- to 30-day prison term. There were no reports the government invoked this law to restrict freedom of speech during the year.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government.

The domestic freedom of expression monitoring group Fundamedios reported that due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private media companies in July reduced staff, including journalists, press support, and administrative staff, among others. According to Fundamedios, the staffing cuts adversely affected press freedom because critical views of the government decreased as a result of the reductions.

The law limits media’s ability to provide election coverage during the official campaign period, with no coverage allowed in the 48 hours preceding a national election. A constitutional court ruling affirmed the right of the press to conduct interviews and file special reports on candidates and issues during the campaign period, but the ruling left in place restrictions on “direct or indirect” promotion of candidates or specific political views.

The law includes the offense of inciting “financial panic” with a penalty of imprisonment from five to seven years for any person who divulges false information that causes alarm in the population and provokes massive withdrawals of deposits from a financial institution that put the institution’s stability at risk.

The law mandates television and radio broadcast of messages and reports by the president and his cabinet are to be free of charge. After taking office in 2017, President Moreno reduced the amount of time required for presidential broadcasts to one 15-minute weekly program, compared with the three- to four-hour weekly program by his predecessor.

Reforms to the 2013 communications law enacted in 2019 on spectrum allocations addressed past concerns about the potential excessive allocation of spectrum to state media. The reforms call for the redistribution of broadcast frequencies to divide media ownership between community media (up to 34 percent) and private and public media (up to 66 percent combined). Maximum figures under the reform are subject to demand and availability. The reforms limit the allocation of radio frequencies to the public sector to no more than 10 percent of the spectrum.

On May 15, the Agency for the Regulation and Control of Telecommunications (ARCOTEL) began a competitive public tender to allocate 3,196 radio frequencies. Fundamedios and other civil society groups criticized the bidding process as lacking transparency and allowing a small number of bidders to accumulate a disproportionate number of frequencies. These groups noted the potential agglomeration of radio frequencies under one domain threatened freedom of expression by reinstalling self-censorship among media outlets. On September 18, the National Assembly initiated an audit of the bidding process. On October 5, ARCOTEL director Xavier Aguirre announced postponement of the bidding process for 25 days to review bidders’ qualifications and review government and civil society inquiries about the process. On November 13, ARCOTEL stated on its website 70 percent of participants (of a total of 621) for the radio frequencies tender complied with all the requisites to obtain their qualifying title, which are valid for 15 years. The remaining 30 percent may ask for a second review of their application.

Violence and Harassment: Human Rights Watch reported police in Guayaquil used apparent excessive force to break up a May 14 peaceful protest against the government’s COVID-19 response and education budget cuts. According to Fundamedios, police attacked two journalists from the daily newspaper Diario Expreso and a photographer for the CDH.

In a December 2019 report, Fundamedios stated the October 2019 violent antigovernment protests led to a resurgence in stigmatization and hateful speech against journalists and media last experienced during former president Correa’s administration. This speech was broadly attributed to the protesters and their supporters, rather than to the Moreno government. Phrases such as “corrupt press” and “sold-out press” were frequently replicated across broad sectors and on social media during the October 2019 protests and carried forward throughout the year. Verbal attacks instilled “a mistrust by the citizenry towards reporters, especially those who belong to some traditional media outlets.” Some journalists said they avoided covering politically charged protests due to fear of suffering physical attacks, as seen during the October 2019 protests.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports government officials tried to penalize those who published items critical of the government. Fundamedios reported five potential censorship cases involving government officials through August 11. While four cases did not involve legal action or penalties, in one instance a Chimborazo provincial council official filed a criminal complaint against two journalists for publishing a report on corrupt acts in Riobamba, capital of Chimborazo Province.

On September 2, the Constitutional Court overturned a 2012 decision issued by the Contentious Electoral Tribunal (TCE) that fined Vistazo news magazine $80,000 for publishing an editorial rejecting the 2011 government-led referendum on proposed reforms to the judiciary branch three days before the vote was held. After initially ruling in the magazine’s favor, stating an opinion editorial cannot be considered “political propaganda,” the TCE reversed its decision after the then president Correa replaced the TCE’s judges. In its September ruling, the Constitutional Court found the TCE responsible for violating the rights of due process and freedom of expression. The ruling also exhorted government officials to emphasize freedom of expression around the electoral process. A Vistazo legal representative told local media, “This decision sets a precedent that media outlets must express their opinions without self-censorship.”

The law imposes local content quotas on media, including a requirement that a minimum of 60 percent of content on television and 50 percent of radio content be produced domestically. Additionally, the law requires that advertising be produced domestically and prohibits any advertising deemed by a judge to be sexist, racist, or discriminatory in nature. Furthermore, the Ministry of Public Health must approve all advertising for food or health products.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense under the law, with penalties of up to three years in prison, plus fines. The law assigns responsibility to media owners, who are liable for opinion pieces or statements by reporters or others, including readers, using their media platforms. The February 2019 reforms to the 2013 communications law repealed a prohibition of “media lynching,” described as the “coordinated and repetitive dissemination of information, directly or by third parties through media, intended to discredit a person or company or reduce its public credibility.” Monitoring organizations reported that as of August 17, the government had not used libel laws against journalists.

On July 13, an attorney representing the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht sued the investigative journalist and director of Investigative Journalism online portal, Fernando Villavicencio, for defamation after Villavicencio published an August 2019 report on the private company’s return to the country in 2010 after its 2008 expulsion. The report alleged the company paid $20 million to the Correa government in exchange for generous debt forgiveness terms and cessation of investigations. The Moreno government barred Odebrecht from further operations in the country in January 2019, weeks after Odebrecht officials confessed to U.S. authorities of orchestrating an international corruption network for many years.

In 2019 the Constitutional Court overturned a 2012 ruling against the newspaper Diario La Hora. The National Secretary of Public Administration successfully argued in 2012 that the outlet published information about the then government’s propaganda expenses that damaged the secretariat’s reputation. The court’s decision highlighted that only humans, not institutions, have rights. Legal experts argued the decision set a precedent in favor of free speech.

Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, including for Media: The National Committee for the Protection of Journalists, a joint government-civil society committee formed in 2019, reconvened on August 11 to discuss ways to protect journalists from threats for reporting on corruption and other sensitive issues. The committee agreed to integrate representatives from the Attorney General’s Office and Judicial Council and, if applicable, activate police intervention to provide protection and support for affected journalists.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, but human rights organizations and media outlets reported cases of online content censorship.

On February 4, a presidency employee denounced the digital media outlet 4 Pelagatos for alleged intellectual property violations for using a photograph of President Moreno, which was taken by the government, in an online article. According to the complaint, 4 Pelagatos violated the government’s intellectual property for using a government image without authorization. On the same day, the Communications Secretariat stated the presidency employee had been dismissed for “taking unauthorized decisions.” The press release reiterated the government’s respect for the freedom of expression but justified restrictions on imagery use based on copyright standards, saying, “in (our) fight against disinformation, (the national government) has copyright over images and information it generates.”

A government regulation requires that internet service providers comply with all information requests from the superintendent of telecommunications, allowing access to client addresses and information without a judicial order. The law holds a media outlet responsible for online comments from readers if the outlet has not established mechanisms for commenters to register their personal data (including national identification number) or created a system to delete offensive comments. The law also prohibits media from using information obtained from social media unless they can verify the author of the information.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government took steps to implement the law effectively. Officials, particularly at the local level, sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports during the year of government corruption that occurred during the Correa presidency. Additionally, reports of price gouging on medicines and personal protective equipment at public hospitals in the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis implicated local and national officials.

Corruption: The government launched or continued multiple investigations, judicial proceedings, and legislative audits of officials accused of corruption related to state contracts and commercial endeavors that reached the highest levels of government.

On April 7, the National Court of Justice sentenced former president Correa, former vice president Jorge Glas, and 16 other public officials and businessmen to eight years in prison for bribery in the Sobornos (bribes) corruption scheme that illicitly financed Correa’s Alianza PAIS party in exchange for public contracts from 2012 to 2016. Two other convicted presidential aides received reduced sentences of 19 and 38 months, respectively, due to their cooperation in the investigation. The judges found sufficient evidence to prove the existence of a criminal network of corruption headed by Correa, even without directly linking him to the bribes. The National Court of Justice’s Tribunal of Cassation upheld the ruling on September 7, and on October 7, it requested that Interpol issue a new red notice for the arrest of Correa and 14 other defendants residing abroad.

On May 20, President Moreno announced measures to combat public corruption during the COVID-19 pandemic and in future emergencies. Moreno conceded to growing demands to dissolve the Anti-Corruption Secretariat, following the public release of a letter from the attorney general and statements by the presidents of the National Court and Judicial Council criticizing the secretariat for interfering in anticorruption investigations.

On June 1, Attorney General Diana Salazar Mendez announced the formation of a 40-person multidisciplinary task force to investigate all allegations of public health sector corruption during the COVID-19 crisis at the national, provincial, and municipal levels. She argued the task force was needed to ensure impartial investigations, since local prosecutors often faced pressure or conflicts of interest due to personal or family ties to those being investigated. On June 4, 17 persons, including former president Abdala Bucaram, were detained in the task force’s first operation. High-profile prosecutions in those investigations were pending as of October 27, although recent government officials including former risk and emergency management secretary Maria Alexandra Ocles Padilla and former Social Security Institute board director Ivan Granda Molina were under investigation.

On January 30, the National Court of Justice sentenced former vice president Maria Alejandra Vicuna to one year in prison for abuse of official privileges. She was also ordered to pay a $173,118 fine and surrender her home.

Financial Disclosure: Government officials are required to declare their financial holdings upon taking office and, if requested, during an investigation. All agencies must disclose salary information monthly through their web portal. The constitution requires public officials to submit an affidavit regarding their net worth at the beginning and end of their term, including their assets and liabilities, as well as an authorization to lift the confidentiality of their bank accounts. Public officials are not required to submit periodic reports, except in the case of legislators, who must also present a declaration at the midpoint of the period for which they were elected. All the declarations must be filed online with the comptroller general, whose website provides general information on the declarations and contains a section where the public can conduct a search of officials to see if officials complied with the disclosure requirements of income and assets. Access to the entire declaration requires a special application, and the comptroller has the discretion to decide whether to provide the information. A noncomplying official cannot be sworn into office, but there are no criminal or administrative sanctions for noncompliance.

Peru

Executive Summary

Peru is a constitutional, multiparty republic. President Martin Vizcarra assumed the presidency in 2018 following the resignation of then president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, under whom Vizcarra was vice president, on corruption allegations. Kuczynski had won the 2016 national elections in a vote widely considered free and fair. Using a provision of the constitution, President Vizcarra dissolved Congress in September 2019 and called for new legislative elections. Free and fair legislative elections took place on January 26 to complete the 2016-21 legislative term, as mandated by the constitution. On November 9, Congress impeached President Vizcarra for alleged corruption, under the “permanent moral incapacity” clause of the constitution. President of Congress Manuel Merino assumed the presidency on November 10 due to the lack of vice presidents but resigned on November 15 following a week of widespread protests. Congress then elected Francisco Sagasti as its new president on November 16, and he consequently became president of the republic.

The Peruvian National Police, who report to the Ministry of Interior, maintain internal security. The armed forces, reporting to the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities in exceptional circumstances, such as the COVID-19 national state of emergency declared in March, and in designated emergency areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces were accused of committing abuses during protests this year, particularly during November 10-15 protests following the impeachment of former president Vizcarra.

Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary detentions (including of minors); serious government corruption at all levels, including in the judiciary; and sex and labor trafficking.

The government took steps to investigate and in some cases prosecute or otherwise punish public officials accused of abuses, including high-level officials. Nonetheless, corruption and perception of impunity remained prevalent and were a major concern in public opinion. President Sagasti publicly committed to support the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for abuses during the November 10-15 protests. The Public Ministry, which is the autonomous public prosecutor’s office, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are also assessing the events of November 10-15.

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, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system generally promoted freedom of expression, including for the press.

The March-June COVID-19 quarantine regulations included journalists and reporters as one of the essential services allowed to transit for work. The National Association of Reporters (ANP) expressed concern for the precarious work conditions for reporters, which included reporting without adequate protective equipment from areas with a high prevalence of COVID-19. The ANP reported 82 reporters died due to COVID-19 between March and August, 35 of whom contracted the disease while reporting from the field.

Violence and Harassment: The Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) and the ANP issued 21 alerts for violence against and harassment of reporters, including threats from local government representatives and a leader of illegal coca growers. IPYS and the ANP reported journalist Daysi Lizeth Mina Huaman went missing on January 26, the day of congressional elections. Mina Huaman was last seen in Santa Rosa, Ayacucho, in the VRAEM region, which had a strong drug-trafficking presence, where she went to vote and conduct interviews about the elections. It was unclear whether her disappearance was related to her work as a journalist.

IPYS denounced PNP aggression towards journalists who covered local protests in July, as well as injuries suffered by three journalists beaten by police during the November protests. It also denounced recurring death threats and online harassment of journalists by anonymous assailants and alleged business and political representatives.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of official censorship. NGOs reported that some media, most notably in locations with a strong presence of illicit activities, practiced self-censorship due to fear of reprisal by local authorities with links to those activities. During the November protests, police detained a man and a woman working at a Lima print shop for producing protest materials. The woman alleged she was sexually assaulted during detention.

Nongovernmental Impact: NGO representatives reported that local figures linked to a wide array of political and economic interests threatened press freedom by intimidating local journalists who reported on those activities. This was particularly acute in areas with a strong presence of illegal activities.

Internet Freedom

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of corruption by government officials during the year. Citizens continued to view corruption as a pervasive problem in all branches of national, regional, and local governments.

Corruption: Several high-profile political figures remained under investigation for corruption, particularly in relation to the well publicized Odebrecht corruption scandal.

Authorities transferred two-time presidential runner-up Keiko Fujimori from preventive detention to house arrest in May during the COVID-19 pandemic, while they continued investigating her for obstruction of justice and money laundering of campaign donations.

There were widespread allegations of corruption in public procurement and in public-private partnerships. Large transportation and energy infrastructure contracts frequently generated high-ranking political interference and corruption, including by former presidents and regional governors. Companies also reported midlevel government officials skewed tender specifications to favor bidders that paid bribes.

There was evidence of widespread corruption in the judicial system. Prosecutors continued an investigation launched following 2018 media reports on a judicial scandal involving allegations of influence peddling and graft by judges at all levels. Corruption was frequent at all levels of the PNP.

Financial Disclosure: Elected public officials and high-level appointed officials must submit personal financial information to the Office of the Comptroller General prior to taking office and periodically thereafter. The comptroller monitors and verifies disclosures, but the law was not strongly enforced. Administrative punishments for noncompliance may include suspension between 30 days and one year, a ban on signing government contracts, and a ban on holding government office. The comptroller makes disclosures available to the public.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

While Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, the illegitimate authoritarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro usurped control over the executive, judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government, and stood up a parallel, illegitimate legislative body alongside the existing elected one. On January 10, 2019, Maduro’s constitutional term as president ended, but he refused to cede control based on his claimed “victory” in the 2018 presidential elections, which were widely condemned as neither free nor fair. On January 23, 2019, Juan Guaido, as president of the National Assembly, assumed the role of interim president pursuant to the provisions of the constitution related to vacancies. Maduro, with the backing 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 despite his constitutional mandate. On December 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime organized parliamentary elections that were rigged in favor of the regime, and nearly 60 countries and international bodies publicly declared the elections were neither free nor fair.

Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces declined and was deeply politicized. Increasingly unpopular with Venezuelans, the illegitimate Maduro regime depended on civilian and military intelligence services, and to a lesser extent, progovernment armed gangs known as colectivos, to neutralize political opposition and subdue the population. The National Guard–a branch of the military that reports to 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, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, 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 reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the national police largely focused on policing Caracas’ Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The national police maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states. Members of security forces committed numerous abuses, and a UN report concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that government authorities and security forces committed crimes against humanity.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces of the illegitimate Maduro regime and colectivos; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; and unlawful interference with privacy. The regime imposed serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, routinely blocking signals and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. The regime essentially criminalized freedom of speech by declaring reporting unfavorable to its policies as libel and slander, incitement to violence, or terrorism, including accurate reporting regarding COVID-19 infection rates. The illegitimate Maduro regime used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations and freedom of assembly. The regime and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property and that of other nongovernmental organizations and civil society. Citizens were unable to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, and there were restrictions on political participation as well as intimidation, harassment, and abuse of National Assembly members, including denial of due process and parliamentary immunity. Pervasive corruption and impunity continued among all Maduro-aligned security forces and in other national and state regime offices, including at the highest levels, which the illegitimate regime made minimal efforts to eliminate. Other significant issues included trafficking in persons, including forced labor; violence against indigenous persons; and existence of the worst forms of child labor.

The illegitimate regime took no effective action to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

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, slander, 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 illegitimate Maduro regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.

Freedom of Speech: The law makes conviction of 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 Constituent National Assembly (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 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. Conviction of exposing another person to public contempt or hatred is punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. Espacio Publico reported 795 violations of freedom of expression, including 135 arrests, between January and August.

The illegitimate Maduro regime threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out regarding COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic. Espacio Publico documented at least 59 arrests by September for COVID-19 coverage.

On March 17, the DGCIM detained medical doctor Ruben Duarte for publishing a video deploring the lack of supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) at the San Cristobal Central Hospital. In August the NGO United Doctors for Venezuela reported at least 12 health-care workers were arrested for demanding PPE. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals, who feared for their own and others’ safety by working without PPE, reported they also faced regime repression for failing to appear for work.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that conviction of 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 of Venezuela (PSUV) used the nearly 600 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; CONATEL oversees the law’s application.

The illegitimate Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. Following the shuttering of DirecTV’s operations on May 19, the TSJ ordered the seizure of all property and equipment of DirecTV and banned DirecTV’s executives from leaving the country. On August 14, DirecTV resumed operations, although multiple regime-independent outlets reported challenges–including veiled threats, outright blocks, and fines–preventing them from broadcasting freely over DirecTV when service was re-established.

The illegitimate 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 throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from covering AN debates and activities. The country’s online independent newspapers were frequently blocked by CANTV. NGOs noted that 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. On January 5, CANTV restricted access to social media on the same day as a leadership vote in the AN, while security forces blocked lawmakers and media from accessing the premises.

The illegitimate regime arbitrarily detained 28 journalists from January to July, according to the national journalists’ union.

Media and NGOs reported increased repression and intimidation of journalists following the emergence of COVID-19. Despite a specific exception permitting travel for members of the press during quarantine, the illegitimate Maduro regime limited the freedom of movement of journalists.

On March 21, FAES officers arrested freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas and his family for inciting hatred. Rojas’ reporting questioned figures published by the illegitimate Maduro regime regarding COVID-19 cases. On August 2, the illegitimate regime granted Rojas a conditional release. DGCIM officers arrested Nicmer Evans on July 13, also for inciting hatred. NGOs and journalists called the arrest a retaliation against Evans due to his role as the founder and director of news site Punto de Corte, which frequently published articles critical of the regime. On August 31, Evans was released.

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 illegitimate 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 260 attacks on journalists from January to August. On February 11, regime supporters and colectivos attacked at least 12 journalists covering the return of interim president Guaido from an international tour. Maduro and illegitimate regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the illegitimate 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 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, print news outlets closed due to the illegitimate 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. In January, 16 print outlets suspended circulation, generally for lack of supplies, and at least 200 media outlets had been blocked, censored, or closed by May.

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

A study by the NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) found that more than five million citizens lived in “media deserts,” areas that had no access to print, television, radio, or digital media due to censorship, forced closures of television and radio stations, and reprisals against journalists. Access to information was most heavily restricted in border territories and indigenous communities.

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 libel and slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths. In October investigative journalist Clavel Rangel was forced to leave the country promptly after publishing an expose on corruption in Bolivar State. The subject of the report, a businessman with links to the regime, filed a defamation suit against Rangel, which would have prohibited her from discussing the case in media or leaving the country.

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 illegitimate 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 Maduro renewed three times the “state of alarm” issued on March 13, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 regime also threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out on COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic.

Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country, often encouraged or left undeterred by the Maduro regime, made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.

Internet Freedom

The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The illegitimate regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. The China National Electronics Import-Export Company provided the regime with cyber support, technical experts, and a suite of software and hardware that was a commercialized version of China’s “Great Firewall” to maintain online censorship, control information, and prevent the internal dissemination of content deemed undesirable by political leadership. 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 illegitimate 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. As of September the illegitimate Maduro regime blocked 40 websites and online platforms that contained information regarding COVID-19.

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 illegitimate Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the illegitimate regime’s official rate, as well as cryptocurrency exchanges. The regime-controlled internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS and the VE Sin Filtro (VE without Filter) internet monitoring project sponsored by internet freedom watchdog Venezuela Inteligente, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. Social media and video streaming sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Periscope were blocked during the AN’s January 5 session and also during live speeches made by interim president Guaido throughout the year. In a September 15 televised address, Maduro denounced the news site Monitoreamos.com as an “enemy” and its journalists as “manipulators and bandits.” On September 16, internet service providers blocked access to the site.

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 illegitimate Maduro regime, and senior regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused of actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.

On August 28, internet providers blocked access to anticensorship tools to prevent health-care workers from accessing the Health Heroes financial assistance program announced by interim president Guaido, according to VE Sin Filtro. The group also found the financial platform used to distribute payments to health workers had been blocked and the illegitimate Maduro regime launched a phishing campaign that redirected users to a malicious site in order to capture their data.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the illegitimate Maduro regime did not implement the law effectively. Several officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The illegitimate regime frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. According to Transparency International, among the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were impunity, weak institutions, and a lack of transparency in the management of government resources.

Corruption: According to illegitimate regime attorney general Tarek William Saab, 1,741 persons had been convicted of corruption-related charges since 2018. The regime, however, did not provide information regarding the alleged cases or persons convicted.

Corruption was a major problem in all security and armed forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. There were no data publicly available on the number of cases involving police and military officials during the year, although the Public Ministry publicized several individual cases against police officers for soliciting bribes and other corrupt activities. On April 10, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published an investigative report detailing corruption in the military. Using a cache of internal army documents, the report documented the exploits of illegitimate regime defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, his businesses in a foreign country under the names of his family members, and 35 high-ranking officers who benefited from corruption and lucrative state contracts.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials, as well as all directors and members of the boards of private companies, to submit sworn financial disclosure statements. By law the Public Ministry and competent criminal courts may require such statements from any other persons when circumstantial evidence arises during an investigation.

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