a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, 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 regime influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters without Borders, and Inter American Press Association (IAPA) condemned Maduro regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: 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. The 2017 Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years for persons convicted of violations. While the stated 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. In April, the OHCHR documented at least 34 cases of abuse of freedom of expression, including harassment, censorship, and seizure of equipment from media outlets, one radio station closure, the suspension of three radio programs critical of the regime, and 41 blocks to webpages that included independent media outlets, NGOs, and sites related to internet security, by regime and private internet providers.
The NGO Espacio Publico reported 228 instances of violations of freedom of expression in 128 cases between January and August, including censorship, intimidation, verbal and judicial harassment, threats, aggression, one death, and 14 arrests.
The NGO Un Mundo Sin Mordaza documented 198 claims of freedom of expression abuses from January to July. They identified seven cases of forced closure of traditional media outlets; seven cases of censorship via blocking of media; eight cases of arrests or detention of civilians and journalists; and 387 cases of harassment, aggression, and intimidation towards journalists and civilians during protests.
On April 18, Olga Mata and Florencio Gil were arrested for “inciting hate” after they published a video on TikTok that criticized high-level regime-aligned individuals such as Diosdado Cabello and called Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, a “widow.” Regime attorney general Saab, also mentioned in the TikTok video, announced the arrest, accusing both of “instigating the assassination of public figures.” The pair were released following a public outcry but were required to report to court monthly. Mata was also made to record an apology video.
Since 2017, the so-called law against hate was used to punish “hate crimes,” including messages on social media. The law was often used to arrest political dissidents and continue intimidation limiting their rights even when released by banning international travel and requiring regular court appearances.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state leaders of the 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 NGO Redes Ayuda reported a total of 63 acts of harassment, threats, and aggressions against journalists and press during the first half of the year.
Espacio Publico registered five arbitrary detentions for online publications through the end of August. Most of those arrested were journalists, members of media, or human rights NGOs and activists. The Law Against Hate continued to be cited by the regime in accusations.
On January 19, during his television program Con el Mazo Dando, Diosdado Cabello, regime-aligned first vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), displayed “wanted” posters of several journalists and opposition leaders, including Luis Carlos Diaz, Naky Soto, Carla Angola, and Rafael Poleo and accused them of being “thieves.”
In July the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela (IPYS) reported on the continued threats and harassment of journalists of the investigative journalism website Armando.Info, specifically Roberto Deniz. IPYS pointed to comments from Pedro Carvajalino, host of the Zurda Konducta program, broadcast by the regime-controlled Venezolana de Television (VTV), in which he called Armando.Info an “information extortion agency,” and to the release of an article by a platform owned by Carvajalino titled “Armando Info: the Assassins of Journalism.” According to IPYS, Deniz, his family, and his outlet Armando.Info, had been targets of attacks since they released a report related to businessman Alex Saab, an ally of Maduro.
On April 19, IAPA reported regime security forces continued a steady pace of raids, threats, and repression of journalists who investigated cases of corruption by high-ranking regime individuals. An IAPA report detailed instances of physical violence, threats, and attacks committed by police and military authorities against journalists who covered the regional and local elections in November 2021. IAPA affirmed access to digital media, multimedia platforms, streaming, and social networks was blocked by regime-controlled and private telecommunications companies, with the intention of muzzling freedom of expression.
Maduro and the regime-aligned PSUV used the nearly 600 regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition. PSUV’s First Vice President Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that inaccurate reporting deemed to disturb the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information is undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.
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 Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets and radio stations. On February 7, a court awarded the headquarters of El Nacional newspaper to Diosdado Cabello after Cabello filed a lawsuit against the newspaper for “moral damage” in 2015 following the republication of Spanish outlet ABC España’s headline on the announcement by a foreign law enforcement agency that Diosdado Cabello was wanted for narcotrafficking. As a result, El Nacional ended a recent effort to publish a print edition. On February 10, Cabello threatened he would go after news outlet La Patilla next. La Patilla also previously reported on Cabello’s alleged links to drug trafficking.
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 2015 National Assembly debates and activities.
Several times Nicolas Maduro instructed the purported national assembly, installed following elections in 2020 that were widely condemned as fraudulent, to include “very strict regulations on social networks” in reforms made to the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio, Television, and Electronic Media (Resorte Law).
The OHCHR documented that during the November 2021 regional elections, there were restrictions to media freedom that affected at least 15 journalists and members of media, including five women.
NGOs noted the 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 and human rights activists who had limited or ceased their activities said 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.
According to a study by the NGO Un Mundo sin Mordaza, 93 percent of persons surveyed in the country considered that freedom of expression could not be fully exercised, and 26 percent responded they never believed they were safe when expressing their opinion or disseminating information. In the results of its Self-Censorship Survey in which 700 persons participated, the NGO concluded there was a clear lack of trust in the regime by citizens. In the survey, 565 persons indicated there was no possibility of expressing themselves in peaceful demonstrations due to fear of being attacked, harassed, or even killed by security forces. According to the study, 29 percent considered they exercised some level of self-censorship and 30 percent responded they almost always self-censored on social networks.
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 its broadcast frequencies to limit the use of radio space by media not aligned with the regime. According to NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations throughout the country were in “illegal” status due to CONATEL not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007, a tool used to intimidate and censor.
As of November, CONATEL had closed more than 100 radio stations in 14 states, with 56 closures in October alone. Most stations were closed for allegedly not having permits to be on the air or for not having the authorization, a concession document for use of the radio spectrum, or both. NGOs reported CONATEL often did not grant the permits despite longstanding requests, leaving radio stations in a technically “illegal” state of operation and therefore vulnerable to being shut down. Some radio stations also had equipment confiscated by CONATEL.
The Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.
According to Espacio Publico and the IPYS, approximately five million persons lived in “media deserts” or “silenced zones,” 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, and these areas also faced greater internet restrictions.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses, punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment and a significant fine. Regime-aligned individuals engaged in reprisals against media organizations and individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy.
On May 16, Carabobo State Governor Rafael Lacava sued Father Alfredo Infante from the NGO Lupa Por la Vida and Marino Alvarado, coordinator of PROVEA, for defamation after the publication of PROVEA’s 2021 human rights report. Lacava took issue with the claim in the report that Carabobo had the highest rate of extrajudicial executions committed by police and security forces. Alvarado told media chain of command members, including Lacava, should be investigated for their role in extrajudicial killings, which often disproportionately affected young men from poor neighborhoods. PROVEA and other NGOs called the lawsuit part of a state policy to criminalize NGOs. On June 23, both Alvarado and Infante retracted their claims after reaching an agreement with Lacava.
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 Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies. The two entities 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.”
The regime continuously used the law against organized crime and financing of terrorism to implicate and accuse political opponents of committing crimes.
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.
The Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The regime exercised broad control over the internet through CONATEL. The China National Electronics Import-Export Company continued to provide the regime with cyber support, technical experts, and a suite of software and hardware that was a commercial version of China’s internet regulator Great Firewall to maintain online censorship, control information, and prevent the internal dissemination of content deemed undesirable by political leadership.
Freedom House noted in its 2022 Freedom on the Net survey that the regime blocked content at critical times, including during the 2021 regional elections, and carried out disinformation campaigns against journalists. The report also found detentions, imprisonment, and legal and extralegal restrictions on certain forms of online speech continued to result in widespread self-censorship by journalists, media outlets, and ordinary citizens fearful of reprisal for their online activity.
The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers; 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. The regime via CONATEL implemented censorship through all major internet service providers and used both direct means and administrative sanctions to cause HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), DNS (Domain Name System) blocks, or SNI (Server Name Indication) filtering by CANTV. Freedom House’s 2022 report noted private internet service providers began blocking news websites that had previously been blocked only by the state-owned service provider. The country’s online independent newspapers were frequently blocked by regime-owned internet service provider CANTV. The regime also used indirect means through cyberattacks or false reports on social networks that led to the closure of the accounts of the related users.
NGOs identified threats and intimidation to social networks users for publishing content critical of the regime on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. The online media monitor ProBox noted the regime used bots, trolls, and cyborgs (a hybrid account in which a human periodically takes over a bot account) to flood social media platforms such as Twitter with proregime information and control online communications. ProBox estimated that more than 60 percent of proregime messages on Twitter appeared to originate from bots. In March, ProBox denounced the purported national assembly for discussing the development of a project to regulate social media and digital content. ProBox also reported on the inauguration of the International University of Communications, which regime media described as a “communication training platform,” but ProBox warned could be a means to train others in disinformation tactics.
According to VE sin Filtro (Venezuela without Filters), an internet monitoring project sponsored by internet freedom watchdog Venezuela Inteligente, the regime practice of blocking websites combined with precarious internet connections and interruptions in electricity service made normal browsing exceedingly difficult and contributed to the online media censorship that had grown exponentially since 2014.
Regime-controlled 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 Maduro regime, and senior regime-aligned individuals 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.
In November 2021, during the regional elections, VE sin Filtro reported more than 35 key web domains relevant to the elections were blocked, which prevented users from accessing information about the elections. In January, VE Sin Filtro documented a significant increase in internet blockings targeting media outlets Efecto Cocuyo, Cronica Uno, and EVTV Miami. Venezuela sin Filtro also registered the blocking of the NGO Justicia, Encuentro y Perdon’s webpage.
State-controlled CANTV was the leading internet provider in the country with 70 percent of subscribers. CANTV implemented a blocking system that required the use of a VPN (virtual private network) to evade censorship. Other internet providers Inter, Movistar, Digitel, Supercable, and NetUno implemented a block that could be circumvented by changing the DNS (domain name system) of the devices.
Restrictions on Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no substantiated reports of Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta, a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by denying them sufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation, affecting the quality of higher education, scientific research, infrastructure investment, teachers’ salaries, and student benefits as well as contributing to teachers leaving their positions and students abandoning their studies. During the year, several of the country’s most important universities operated with deficits averaging 97 percent.
According to Aula Abierta, 73 percent of university teacher association group boards had expired, but registration obstacles imposed by proregime actors at the CNE prevented them from electing new board members. Universities, unions, and other associations that hold elections faced obstacles that impeded the renewal of their expired directives.
According to a January report from the ULA-Human Rights Observatory, Central University of Venezuela (UCV) reported only 1.13 percent of UCV’s requested budget for the year received approval. According to the report, the regime also continued to owe part of the 2020 and 2021 budget. The Maduro regime stated the underfunding was due to a lack of resources, but observers such as Aula Abierta claimed it was intentional and an attempt to exercise control over or limit the scope of universities, which are autonomous and usually encourage dissent.
A professor at the University of the Andes (ULA) reported the libraries at this university had not received funding for resources, books, and infrastructure maintenance since 2018. According to Aula Abierta, 87.4 percent of 143 university libraries were inoperable largely due to lack of funding, meaning students did not have access to their in-person or online services. According to ULA, the lack of adequate budgetary allotments for universities contributed to many professors and students leaving the universities. ULA reported a professor’s salary decreased by 99 percent in the last 20 years, which led many to migrate or seek other employment. This drop in salaries affected elderly or retired professors the most. ULA estimated the number of university professors decreased by 50 percent. The dropout rate of students at UCV was estimated to be 40 percent.
The Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities. In 2020, the regime announced a plan to invest resources in recovering university spaces, but the budget for the plan was administered by a regime-controlled commission. ULA reported the infrastructure of most universities was severely deteriorated. Universities continued to denounce the regime’s imposition of a “protectorate” at UCV, usurping the responsibilities of the university rector and undermining its autonomy.
Following alumni elections at UCV on July 13, in which the PSUV faction lost in all 11 departments, a regime-linked Supreme Court magistrate, Caryslia Beatriz Rodríguez Rodríguez, suspended the results of the School of Education following the apparent victory of the opposition board, Humanitas Egresados.
The Maduro regime continued its practice of providing educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria. NGOs and university students reported the use of the card as a discriminatory policy that politicized the issuance of scholarships and restricted academic freedom.