May 21, 2003

I. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

In 2002 and the early months of 2003 the government of President Hugo Chávez and most of the Venezuelan media were virtually at war. Leading journalists repeatedly denounced the president in harsh, at times blatantly partisan terms.  President Chávez, for his part, frequently lambasted the media in his weekly television and radio broadcasts, often singling out media owners by name as traitors and coup-mongers. As the situation grew more polarized, attacks on opposition journalists by supporters of the president increased sharply. Some opposition supporters, in turn, targeted public and community media that tended to support the president.  Although tensions have relaxed somewhat in recent months, government-media relations continue to reflect the country's polarized political situation.

The Venezuelan government has not done nearly enough to stop acts of violence against journalists or to prosecute those responsible. Indeed, its actions have often increased public agitation against the media. Moreover, the government is currently investigating four leading private television stations for violating licensing regulations. Some of these regulations violate established international free expression norms; others are vaguely worded and invite arbitrary application and abuse. While there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the independence and objectivity of the Venezuelan press, the ongoing investigations and threatened suspension of broadcasting licenses at the four stations are only making a bad situation worse. Finally, the government has recently proposed a new media law that would impose far-reaching restrictions on the press. It is critical that this downward spiral be stopped now, before more lasting damage is done to the institution of the press and to the basic right to free expression in Venezuela.

In early February 2003, an unlimited national strike against the government of President Chávez was called off without achieving its objective of forcing him to resign before completing his term. The shutdown, which lasted for sixty-two days, had been organized by the opposition umbrella group Coordinadora Democrática, the business organization Fedecámaras, and the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), the country's largest trade union federation. It crippled Venezuela's oil industry and caused serious fuel shortages and other hardships inside the country.

The strike also exacerbated political tensions in an already polarized country. Throughout the protest, during which tens of thousands took to the streets in largely peaceful marches, the media, with few exceptions, backed the strikers and echoed their calls for the government to resign. Venezuela's private television networks bombarded viewers with coverage of the marches and carried opposition political messages free of charge in place of commercial advertising.  This intense exposure of the protests contrasted sharply with the media's failure to report eight months earlier, when, on April 13, 2002, the armed forces reinstated Chávez after an unsuccessful civil-military attempt to oust him from power.

Since the strike has ended, negotiations facilitated by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States for a peaceful resolution of the crisis have continued. The tensions between the government and the media have relaxed somewhat in comparison with earlier months, and the number of physical attacks on journalists has declined. Nevertheless, in today's volatile political atmosphere, the risk of violent confrontation remains high. Tensions could easily re-ignite if the current stand-off between the government, its supporters, and the opposition, gives way once more to protests and counter-protests in the streets.

 There are few obvious limits on free expression in Venezuela. The country's print and audiovisual media operate without restrictions. Most are strongly opposed to President Chávez and express their criticism in unequivocal and often strident terms. No journalists are in prison for exercising their profession, and there have been few criminal prosecutions or successful civil suits against journalists in recent years.

Nevertheless, journalists in Venezuela today face constant physical risks.  Human Rights Watch estimates that there were at least 130 assaults and threats of physical harm to journalists and press property between the beginning of 2002 and February 2003, and the assaults continue. It is not the government, the police or the armed forces that commit these acts of aggression, however, but civilians who strongly identify with the president and his proclaimed revolutionary program.

It is evident, even from street graffiti in Venezuela's capital, Caracas, that a significant segment of the population is angered by the press. Many feel that the media have failed to do their essential job of providing the public with accurate and unbiased information.  Both members of the government, and their civilian supporters who mount angry vigils outside the television studios, share this view. Many journalists interviewed by Human Rights Watch themselves had deep misgivings about the political role the press is currently playing in Venezuela.[1]

International standards on freedom of expression recognize that the media may be subject to certain legitimate restrictions. It is generally accepted, however,that standards of reporting, accuracy, and impartiality are best protected by voluntary controls and the market, while those unfairly treated by the press may protect their rights through civil proceedings in the courts. In short, it is widely accepted that fewer rather than more controls benefit democracy by stimulating a diverse and vigorous public debate. Unfortunately, the lapse of journalistic standards in Venezuela has given added resonance to calls from the government and its supporters for increased state control and regulation, particularly of the audiovisual media. Were such controls to be imposed, it would be a real setback for Venezuelan democracy.

The issue of government controls on the media was addressed recently by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  Referring to concerns expressed by governments and politicians in the region about alleged lapses of journalistic ethics, the rapporteur noted:

[T]he media are primarily responsible to the public, and not to the government. The principal function of the media is to inform the public about, among other things, measures taken by the government. This is a basic function in a democracy, so that any threat of imposing legal sanctions for journalistic decisions that are based essentially on subjective insights or professional judgment would also have the effect of inhibiting the media and preventing the dissemination of information of legitimate interest to the public.[2]

He also urged the media to uphold objective reporting standards, "to initiate a process of reflection about their role in times of political crisis, when society expects to receive the most comprehensive and ample information."[3]

This report outlines Human Rights Watch's concerns about freedom of expression in Venezuela. It follows a mission to Caracas in February 2003 in which we collected first-hand information on the current political crisis and its impact on freedom of expression. As summarized immediately below, separate chapters of this report address Human Rights Watch's three main concerns: violence against journalists; the ongoing investigation of the four leading television stations; and the proposed media law.

During Human Rights Watch's February visit to Venezuela we interviewed many journalists working for opposition media who had been victims of violent attacks.  Journalists working for state-financed media and community radio and television stations that support the Chávez government have also been attacked. Virtually all attacks on journalists, from whichever side, have gone unpunished.

Most of the victims of attacks on the press have been reporters, photographers, television cameramen, and assistants working for private media on assignment in Caracas and the provinces. When TV crews try to cover an official event, displaying their company logo on their camera or microphone, irate Chávez supporters frequently descend on them. Men and women brandishing sticks remonstrate with them, accuse them of being liars and coup-mongers, order them to leave, insult them, smash the windows of their vehicles, damage their equipment, and sometimes shove them or throw punches.  On a smaller scale, journalists from state-controlled media have been jostled, insulted and harassed by opposition demonstrators. 

President Chávez himself has delivered stinging attacks on the press, and particularly the private television networks, as enemies of Venezuela's "Bolivarian Revolution." To our knowledge, however, neither Chávez nor any government official has ordered or directly encouraged government supporters to physically attack journalists. Indeed, on at least one occasion, Chávez has publicly called on his supporters to respect journalists, stating: "it's not the fault of the journalist taking notes in the street, or the photographers or cameramen … they are workers. The blame lies with the owners of those media."[4]  Yet security forces have done far too little to stop such attacks as they occur and, as noted above, the government has done almost nothing to bring perpetrators to justice.

In a meeting with President Chávez in June 2002, Human Rights Watch strongly urged him to make clear that his criticisms of the press in no circumstance justify attacks by his supporters on opposition journalists.  In February 2003, Human Rights Watch reiterated its concerns in a meeting with Venezuela's minister of information, Nora Uribe, who frequently accompanies the president during his television broadcasts.  Notably, during his April 27 Hello President program, Chávez did indeed call on his supporters to cease such attacks. "I call on you to respect journalists and to treat them with the dignity they deserve," Chávez said. "I ask the people not to be carried away by the political position taken by a television channel or by the fact that it's campaigning against Chávez. We are not going to pin that on the journalists, who are only workers doing their jobs."[5]

Human Rights Watch welcomes such conciliatory statements, but believes that they must be backed by a determination to ensure that physical attacks on journalists do not go unpunished. Unfortunately, the efforts made to date by the Attorney General's office to investigate these attacks and prosecute those responsible have been woefully insufficient. The criminal prosecution of those responsible would send a much stronger message to the public than presidential exhortations alone.

Moreover, the government's conciliatory gestures mean little if accompanied by other legal measures that, if implemented, would significantly erode press freedom and violate international standards of free expression that Venezuela is obliged to uphold. The Chávez government has insisted that the state's control of broadcasting frequencies gives his government legal powers to punish radio and television stations that overstep the boundaries of permissible criticism. In early February 2003, his minister of infrastructure, Diosdado Cabello, launched an investigation into the country's four largest private television networks-RCTV, Globovisión, Televen and Venevisión-for serious breaches of broadcasting regulations during their coverage of the strike. Under current telecommunications law, the minister may suspend or revoke their broadcasting licenses. In theory, the government can, at a stroke, silence or muzzle Venezuela's most powerful media, although the stations may appeal for review of the decision to the Supreme Court.

During our February visit we discussed the investigation with Cabello, the minister of infrastructure; Jesse Chacón, the executive director of CONATEL, the administrative body that is responsible for conducting the investigation; and Nora Uribe, the minister for communication and information. We also met with senior executives of the four private networks facing the loss of their licenses. Finally, in order to reach an independent judgment regarding the broadcasts at issue, we viewed many hours of videotapes, some provided us by CONATEL, some by the networks.

We conclude that the administrative proceedings now underway raise serious freedom of expression issues. In particular, we note:

  • Some of the regulations the government seeks to enforce violate freedom of expression standards protected in human rights treaties that Venezuela has ratified.
  • Other regulations cited in the investigations are consistent with grounds under which freedom of expression may legitimately be restricted, such as the protection of public order. We are concerned, however, that the term "incitement to rebellion" may be broadly interpreted to cover strongly-worded criticism of government authorities or calls to engage in non-violent protest activities.
  • The body set up to investigate broadcasting infractions and apply penalties under existing laws is wholly dependent on the executive branch, and does not offer the necessary guarantees of independence and impartiality.

      The broadcasting investigation is not the only recent development that threatens freedom of expression.  For several years, a draft law to regulate television and radio broadcasting has been under discussion.  In January, at the same time as the investigation of the television was begun, President Chávez presented a revised version of the bill to the National Assembly (Venezuela's legislature).  The version Chávez presented included new, more restrictive provisions, different from those included in the draft of the law that CONATEL discussed with representatives of the broadcasting industry in 2002. Concerned about the potentially abusive use of these provisions, much of the media has criticized the bill as a "gag law" designed to impose extensive government controls over television output.

The new bill has several troubling aspects, and imposes a bewildering array of new requirements and restrictions on broadcasters. In particular:

 

  • In an attempt to protect children from exposure to violence, excessive (and possibly unworkable) restrictions are imposed on broadcasting during "protected hours" (between 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.).
  • A prohibition on the broadcasting of "contents that promote, defend or incite lack of respect toward legitimate institutions and authorities," is a recipe for self-censorship, to the detriment of a diverse and vibrant public debate.
  • Stations found to have promoted, advocated or incited disturbances of public order may be suspended for up to forty-eight hours on the first offense. If broadly applied this provision could lead to suspension of the licenses of stations that defend protest activity or express opinions critical of the government. A second offense within three years of the first could lead to a revocation of the station's broadcasting license. This provision could also lead to extensive self-censorship.
  • The "National Institute of Radio and Television," which would be established under the bill, does not offer sufficient guarantees of independence to ensure that it will act to protect the public interest rather than the political interests of the governing party.

 Recommendations

            The present climate of political polarization in Venezuela fosters violence and jeopardizes respect for human rights. The media can contribute to a constructive public debate by providing fair and accurate reporting.  In turn, the government must preserve Venezuela's traditional respect for press freedom. In particular:

·President Chávez should state, in unequivocal terms, that his criticism of the press is not meant to justify physical attacks by his supporters against the press or the opposition. He should make a public commitment to ensure that those responsible for these abuses will be held accountable.

·The attorney general should set up a special panel to investigate attacks against the press, with sufficient staff and resources, and announce its establishment publicly.

·Existing laws and regulations that conflict with Venezuela's international obligations on freedom of expression should be eliminated or amended. Pending repeal of the offending provisions, the Ministry of Infrastructure should not pursue investigations of the television networks for infractions of such laws and regulations. In any investigations of alleged infractions, decisions on culpability and punishment should be made by an impartial and independent body. Any sanctions applied should be strictly proportionate to the seriousness of the infraction.

·The government should eliminate the provision on "insulting authorities" from the new media law. It should also define more precisely the meaning of "incite, advocate, and promote disturbances of public order" to ensure that these terms are not used to penalize legitimate political criticism and debate.

·The body set up to implement the new media law and to investigate and sanction infractions of content regulations should be composed of persons with relevant expertise and/or experience, selected to be reasonably representative of society as a whole. Government officials or those holding office in political parties should not be eligible. Members of the body should be appointed for a fixed term and be protected from dismissal except in clearly specified circumstances.

[1] Both Venezuelan nongovernmental  human rights organizations and international nongovernmental press freedom advocacy groups have noted the political bias of the Venezuelan media. The former include  the respected organization Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA). See PROVEA, Situación de los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela, Informe Anual  2001/2002, p. 449, available on the Internet at http://www.derechos.org.ve. The latter groups include the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters without Borders, and the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS).

[2] Report of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, 2002, Chapter 2, para. 16. http://www.cidh.org/Relatoria/English/AnnualReports/AR02/ChapterII2002-1.htm#2 (retrieved on April 30, 2003).

[4] "Aló Presidente," weekly television broadcast by President Chávez, January 20, 2003. Copies of the programs are available on the Venezuelan government's website.  See http://www.venezuela.gov.ve.

[5] "Aló Presidente," April 27, 2003.