a. Freedom of Speech and 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, the Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned government efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The law makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In November 2017, however, the 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 government 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.
On September 16, DGCIM officers detained Merida state firefighters Ricardo Prieto Parra and Carlos Varon Garcia on charges of “instigating hate” after a satirical video they produced of a donkey depicted as President Maduro received wide publicity on social media. Prieto Parra and Varon Garcia faced up to 20 years in prison for the alleged crime.
Hospital worker Lenny Josefina Martinez Gonzalez remained in prison as of October 8, awaiting trial after SEBIN arrested her in October 2017 for photographing women giving birth in a hospital waiting room. The photographs, captured in Lara State, illustrated the country’s medical crisis and were widely viewed on social media.
Press and Media Freedom: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation. Human Rights NGO Espacio Publico counted 92 acts of censorship between January and June, as well as 73 attacks on journalists and reporters. Meanwhile, the local journalists’ union (SNTP) counted 26 “closures, sanctions, and blockings” of outlets and 87 attacks on journalists during the same period.
The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience to the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.
Despite such laws President Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) used the nearly 600 government-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, according to observers.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of the radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) oversees the law’s application.
The government continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. In May a court found El Nacional, the nation’s largest independent daily newspaper, guilty of “moral damage” against Cabello for republishing a critical article from the Spanish newspaper ABC and ordered the newspaper to pay a fine of one billion bolivares fuertes ($10,400).
The NGO Espacio Publico reported 219 violations of freedom of expression between January and June. This represented a 72 percent decline from the historically high numbers of 2017, but an 11 percent increase over the 2013-16 averages. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. State-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous progovernment programming. In addition private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts (cadenas) throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of government achievements. Both Maduro and other ruling-party officials utilized mandatory broadcast time to campaign for progovernment candidates. Opposition candidates generally did not have access to media broadcast time.
The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state government leaders continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. Government officials, including the president, used government-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antigovernment destabilization campaigns and coup attempts.
Government officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country. No charges were filed against GNB officers who allegedly attacked Elyangelica Gonzalez, a reporter for Univision Noticias and the Colombian-based station Caracol Radio, while she reported outside the Supreme Court in March 2017.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In its 2016 report, the Venezuelan Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) noted the government’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The government also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the SNTP, during the year 25 print news outlets closed due to the government’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. During the first half of the year, five regional newspapers went out of print for lack of supplies, especially newsprint: Diario El Tiempo in Anzoategui State, El Impulso in Lara, El Oriental in Monagas, La Prensa de Barinas in Barinas, and La Region del Oriente in Sucre.
The government controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with government-owned or government-friendly media.
Libel/Slander Laws: Government officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy. As of October 1, President Maduro had not acted on his June 2017 announcement that he would use slander laws 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 government 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 government-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year President Maduro renewed three 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 National Assembly endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The National Assembly continued systematically to refuse to ratify each renewal, and the Supreme Court annulled each refusal, reasoning that the assembly’s “contempt” status made its failure to endorse the renewal “unconstitutional.” According to Human Rights Watch, the “state of exception” negatively affected the 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 government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The executive branch exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access, 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 intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted authorities in locating the users.
The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions them with fines for distributing prohibited messages. IPYS reported that from 2017 to November, local internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked access to eight online outlets, including El Nacional, La Patilla, Runrunes, Cronica Uno, Armando.Info, and El Pitazo.
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 government continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the government’s official rate. The government-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages.
Intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the government, and senior government officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate government critics and human rights defenders.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 64 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no substantive reports of government restrictions on cultural events, but there were some government restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedoms, reported the government retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to some university leaders, the 2018 budget allocation would not take them through the first semester. In September 2017 the National University Council, the government regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy. The government continued gradually increasing its control over local universities, including the admissions process. In 2015 the Ministry of Education began selecting at least 70 percent of those offered university seats using criteria based 50 percent on academic achievement, 30 percent on socioeconomic conditions, 15 percent on residency, and 5 percent on involvement in social service activities. University leaders complained the student selection process unfairly advantaged ruling-party supporters and usurped authority from the universities.
In May the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology announced a nationwide university scholarship program that would reportedly benefit more than 50,000 university students. According to the ministry, students must have a carnet de la patria (homeland card, a government-issued social benefits card provided primarily to government supporters; see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation) to qualify. In June the government similarly announced a financial incentive called the “student bonus” for cardholders with school-age children.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government did not respect these rights.
On October 5, the government announced the creation of a special migration police unit. Although some NGOs expressed concern the government would use the unit to restrict international travel of select individuals, the government asserted the force would essentially be customs and border patrol units. The government 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 Venezuelan migratory crisis.
The government 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.
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.
On September 24, CONARE announced it would approve refugee applications for 54 Colombians who were awaiting approval. CONARE president Juan Carlos Aleman remarked the commission had more than 1,100 active requests for refugee status and that CONARE would respond to all of the requests in the next few months.
Arbitrary detentions continued but were reduced during the year. Security forces often used excessive force to control residents in states along the border with Colombia.
While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
In-country Movement: The government restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on government-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 even after years of delays. Some applicants reportedly paid several thousands of U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The government repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and National Assembly deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
Exile: There were new cases of citizens denied the right to return during the year. For example, the government released jailed University of Los Andes student leader Villca Fernandez on June 14, requiring that he leave the country as a condition of his release. SEBIN officials had arrested Fernandez in 2016 after he sent a tweet defending himself after then PSUV first vice president Diosdado Cabello threatened Fernandez on his weekly televised show. SEBIN officials reportedly tortured Fernandez, refused him medical attention, and kept him in solitary confinement, releasing him for less than 15 minutes at a time to use the bathroom.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. UNHCR estimated there were 7,860 recognized refugees and 173,000 persons in need of international protection in the country in 2017. The majority of such persons remained without any protection. Despite the increased migration of Venezuelans to neighboring countries, NGOs supporting displaced Colombians noted many chose to remain in Venezuela despite the economic crisis, citing a cost of living comparatively lower than in Colombia, fear of violence, or the ease with which they could travel between the two nations without relocating. Most of the Colombians had not accessed procedures for refugee status determination due to the inefficiency of the process. UNHCR reported that few persons in need of international protection were legally recognized as refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Colombian asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant challenges to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children.