Critics Targeted by Government
July 17, 2012
“For years, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda. Today that system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists, and rights defenders are greater than they’ve ever been under Chávez.”
Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director, Americas division

The concentration of power under President Hugo Chávez has taken a heavy toll on human rights in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 133-page report, “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez's Venezuela”, documents how the accumulation of power in the executive and the erosion of human rights protections have allowed the Chávez government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics and perceived opponents in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and civil society.

“For years, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Today that system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists, and rights defenders are greater than they’ve ever been under Chávez.”

Human Rights Watch’s last major report on Venezuela, released in September 2008, documented how democratic institutions and human rights guarantees had suffered during the first decade of Chávez’s presidency. Since then, the human rights situation in the country has become even more precarious.

While many Venezuelans continue to criticize the government, the prospect of facing reprisals – in the form of arbitrary or abusive state action – has undercut the ability of judges to adjudicate politically sensitive cases, and forced journalists and rights defenders to weigh the consequences of disseminating information and opinions critical of the government.


The Courts
Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly have taken dramatic steps to ensure their political control over the Supreme Court, which has been packed with political allies since 2004. After legislative elections in 2010 reduced the Chávez majority in Congress, they rushed to change the law governing the process for appointing justices and then re-packed the Supreme Court before the newly elected opposition legislators took their seats.

The Supreme Court’s record has only worsened in recent years, with justices openly rejecting the principle of separation of powers and publicly pledging their commitment to advancing Chávez’s political agenda. This political commitment has been reflected in the court’s rulings, which have repeatedly validated the government’s disregard for international human rights norms.

The most disturbing example of the lack of judicial independence has been the prosecution of the Judge María Lourdes Afiuni – at the behest of Chávez – after she granted conditional liberty to a prominent government critic who had spent almost three years in prison awaiting trial. Afiuni’s arrest and prolonged imprisonment have had a powerful impact on other lower court judges, who fear being criminally prosecuted if they issue rulings that could upset the Chávez government.

The Chávez government has rejected the authority of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the most important external mechanisms for seeking redress for abuses when national courts fail to provide it. 

The Media
In December 2010, the pro-Chávez majority in the National Assembly amended the 2004 broadcasting law to apply its restrictions on free speech in the media to the internet as well. It also added new restrictions, including a prohibition on transmitting messages that “foment anxiety in the public,” and granted the government-controlled telecommunications agency, CONATEL, greater powers to sanction TV and radio broadcasters, as well as websites, that violate them.

The Chávez government has used its regulatory authority to expand the number of government-run and pro-Chávez media outlets. It has also made ample use of its authority to issue mandatory broadcasts, routinely requiring private media to interrupt their regular programming to transmit presidential speeches and messages celebrating government policies.

It has also taken aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming. Venezuela’s oldest private television channel, RCTV, which was arbitrarily removed from the public airwaves in 2007, has since been driven off cable TV by the government, leaving Globovisión as the only major channel that remains critical of Chávez. The government has also pursued administrative sanctions against Globovisión that could lead to its suspension or closure.

The government has targeted media outlets for sanction and/or censorship for their critical reporting on the government’s response to issues such as water pollution, violent crime, a prison riot, and an earthquake – as well as for a series of political advertisements in support of property rights, a satirical news story depicting senior officials as dancers in a Chávez-led cabaret, and a Colombian soap opera in which a character named Venezuela who loses her dog named Huguito (Little Hugo) asks her boyfriend, “What will become of Venezuela without Huguito?” and he responds “You will be free, Venezuela.”

While sharp criticism of the government is still common in the print media, on Globovisión, and in some other outlets, the fear of government reprisals has made self-censorship a serious problem among journalists and broadcasters in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Defenders
The Chávez government has intensified its efforts to marginalize the country’s human rights defenders by repeatedly accusing them of seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy with the support of the United States government.

While some human rights nongovernmental organizations have received funding from US sources – a common practice among independent groups throughout Latin America – there is no credible evidence that the independence and integrity of their work has been compromised as a result.

The weight of the government’s unfounded allegations has been compounded by Chávez supporters, who have filed multiple criminal complaints against leading nongovernmental organizations for receiving foreign funding. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that individuals or organizations that receive foreign funding could be prosecuted for “treason” under a provision of the criminal code that establishes a prison sentence of up to 15 years. And the National Assembly has enacted legislation blocking organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international assistance.

The Chávez government has also enacted rules that dramatically reduce the public’s right to obtain information held by the government. In combination, these measures have significantly increased the government’s ability to prevent or deter human rights defenders from obtaining the funding, information, legal standing, and public visibility they need to be effective advocates.

Human Rights Watch found a strong perception among local human rights defenders that the government’s verbal attacks have contributed to an environment in which they are more vulnerable to acts of intimidation by low-level officials and threats and acts of violence by private citizens who support Chávez.

The report provides detailed recommendations to the Venezuelan government to reverse the damage done to human rights protections in recent years. These include restoring the credibility of the Supreme Court through a ratification process for all justices who were appointed after the 2004 court-packing law, establishing an autonomous agency to administer broadcasting frequencies, repealing legislation that undercuts the work of local human rights defenders, and respecting the authority of the Inter-American human rights system.

“Unfortunately, given how President Chávez has reacted to similar recommendations in the past, it’s very unlikely that he will take steps to restore the checks on presidential power that he and his supporters have eliminated,” Vivanco said.

When Human Rights Watch released its last report at a news conference in Caracas in 2008, Chávez responded by having the group’s representatives forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country.

Selected cases documented in “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez's Venezuela”:

  • After Judge María Lourdes Afiuni granted conditional freedom in December 2009 to a government critic who had spent nearly three years in prison awaiting trial on corruption charges, Chávez denounced her as a “bandit” and called for her to be given a 30-year prison sentence. Although Afiuni’s ruling complied with a recommendation by United Nations human rights monitors – and was consistent with Venezuelan law – she was promptly arrested and ordered to stand trial by a provisional judge who had publicly pledged his loyalty to Chávez. (“I give my life for the Revolution,” he wrote on the website of the president’s political party. “I would never betray this process and much less my Commander.”) Afiuni spent more than a year in prison in pretrial detention, in deplorable conditions, together with convicted prisoners – including many she herself had sentenced – who subjected her to repeated death threats. In the face of growing criticism from international human rights bodies, Afiuni was moved to house arrest in February 2011, where she remains today while awaiting trial.
  • After the weekly newspaper 6 to Poder published a satirical article in August 2011 depicting six high-level female officials – including the attorney general and Supreme Court president – as dancers in a cabaret entitled “The Revolution” directed by “Mr. Chávez,” the six officials called for a criminal investigation and for the paper to be closed down. Within hours, arrest warrants were issued for the paper’s director, Dinora Girón, and its president, Leocenis García, on charges of “instigation of public hatred.” Girón was arrested the following day, held for two days, then granted conditional liberty. García went into hiding, but turned himself in to authorities the following week, and was imprisoned for two months, then granted conditional freedom. At this writing, both Girón and García remain under criminal investigation pending trial. The newspaper is under a court order to refrain from publishing any text or images that could constitute “an offense and/or insult to the reputation, or to the decorum, of any representative of public authorities, and whose objective is to expose them to public disdain or hatred.”
  • After human rights defender Rocío San Miguel appeared on a television show in May 2010 and denounced the fact that senior military officers were members of Chávez’s political party (a practice prohibited by the Venezuelan Constitution), she was accused on state television of being a “CIA agent” and “inciting insurrection,” and in the official magazine of the Armed Forces of seeking to foment a coup d’état in Venezuela. The nongovernmental organization that she directs, Citizen Watch, was also named – along with other leading NGOs – in a criminal complaint filed by several youth groups affiliated with Chávez’s political party for alleged “treason” due to having received funding from the US government. San Miguel has since received repeated death threats from unidentified individuals. While she does not know the source of those threats, she believes the denunciations in the official media have made her more vulnerable to such acts of intimidation.
  • After human rights defender Humberto Prado criticized the government in June 2011 for its handling of a prison riot, Chávez’s justice minister accused him of seeking to “destabilize the prison system” and the vice president claimed the criticism was part of a strategy to “politically destabilize the country.” Within days of these denunciations, Prado began receiving anonymous threats, including phone calls telling him to keep quiet if he cared about his children, prompting him to leave the country with his family for two months. As he prepared to return to Venezuela, he received an anonymous email with the image of what appeared to be an official document from the Attorney General’s Office stating that he was under criminal investigation for “treason.” (The prosecutor whose name appears on the letter later told him he had not written or signed it.) He continued to receive threats from unidentified sources. Like San Miguel, he believes the verbal attacks by Chávez officials have made him more vulnerable to such acts of intimidation.

  • After Venezuela’s oldest television channel, RCTV, broadcast a video in November 2006 showing Chávez’s energy minister telling his employees at the state oil company to quit their jobs if they did not support the president, Chávez publicly warned RCTV and other channels that they could lose their broadcasting license – a threat he had made repeatedly in response to critical broadcasting. A month later, the president announced his (unilateral) decision that RCTV would no longer be “tolerated” on the public airwaves after its license expired the following year. RCTV stopped transmitting on open frequencies in May 2007, but continued as a cable channel. Since then, the government has used its regulatory power to drive RCTV off of cable television as well. In January 2010, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) determined that RCTV was a “national audiovisual producer” and subject to newly established broadcasting norms. Days later, Chávez’s communications minister threatened to open administrative investigations against cable providers whose broadcast channels were not in compliance with the norms. In response, the country’s cable providers stopped broadcasting RCTV International. CONATEL has since denied RCTV’s repeated efforts to re-register as a cable channel. Today, RCTV can only be viewed on the Internet, and it no longer produces news coverage due to lack of funding.

  • After Globovisión, the only remaining television station with national coverage consistently critical of Chávez’s policies, provided extensive coverage of a prison riot in June 2011 – including numerous interviews with distressed family members who claimed security forces were killing prisoners – Chávez responded by accusing the station of “set[ting] the country on fire…with the sole purpose of overthrowing this government.” The government promptly opened an administrative investigation of Globovisión’s coverage of the violence and, in October, ruled that the station had “promoted hatred for political reasons that generated anxiety in the population,” and imposeda US$ 2.1 million fine, which is equivalent to 7.5 percent of the company’s 2010 income. Globovisión is currently facing six additional administrative investigations – including one opened in response to their reporting that the government failed to provide the public with basic information in the aftermath of an earthquake and another for broadcasting footage of an opposition political candidate criticizing the electoral authority for delaying the release of local election results. Under the broadcasting law enacted by Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly in 2004, a second ruling against Globovisión could result in another heavy fine, suspension of the station’s transmission, or revocation of its license.

  • After Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, an opposition politician, appeared on Globovisión’s main political talk show in March 2010 and commented on allegations of increased drug trafficking in Venezuela and a Spanish court ruling that referred to possible collaboration between the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas, Basque separatists, and other “terrorist” groups, Chávez responded in a national broadcast that these comments “could not be permitted” and called on other branches of government “to take action.” Two weeks later, Álvarez Paz was arrested on grounds that his “evidently false statements” had caused “an unfounded fear” in the Venezuelan people. Álvarez Paz remained in pretrial detention for almost two months, and was then granted conditional liberty during his trial, which culminated in July 2011 with a guilty verdict and a two-year prison sentence. The judge allowed Álvarez Paz to serve his sentence on conditional liberty, but forbade him from leaving the country without judicial authorization.

  • After Globovisión’s president, Guillermo Zuloaga, at an international conference in March 2010, criticized Chávez’s attacks on press freedoms and accused the president of having ordered the shooting of demonstrators prior to the 2002 coup, the pro-Chávez Congress called for a criminal investigation and he was arrested on charges of disseminating false information and offending the president. A judge soon granted him conditional liberty, but in June Chávez publicly insisted that he be re-arrested. Two days later, members of the National Guard raided Zuloaga’s home and the following week a judge issued a new arrest warrant for him on an unrelated case, though he fled the country before it could be executed and has not returned.

  • After Nelson Mezerhane, a banker and principal shareholder of Globovisión, claimed in a December 2009 interview that individuals “linked to the government” had spread rumors that provoked withdrawals of savings from Venezuelan banks, Chávez denounced him, called on the attorney general “to open a formal investigation,” threatened to nationalize Mezerhane’s bank, and warned that “[i]f a television station crosses the line again, violating the laws, lacking respect for society, the State, or institutions, it cannot, it should not remain open.” Six months later, the Attorney General’s Office seized Mezerhane’s home and shares in Globovisión, while the state banking authority nationalized his bank. The Attorney General’s Office also forbade Mezerhane from leaving the country, but he was abroad at the time the order was issued and has not returned.

  • After Tu Imagen TV, a local cable channel in Miranda state, was denounced by a pro-Chávez mayor in November 2010 for being “biased in favor of the political opposition,” CONATEL ordered the local cable provider to stop broadcasting the channel on the grounds that the channel and the provider had failed to comply with recent regulations requiring a written contract between the parties. Provided with a signed contract a month later, the agency waited eight months before authorizing the cable provider to renew broadcasting the channel – and when it did, according to the channel's director, threatened to take it off the air again if it continued to produce critical programming.

  • After the soap opera “Chepe Fortuna” ran a scene in January 2011 in which a character named Venezuela who had lost her dog named Huguito (Little Hugo) asks her boyfriend, “What will become of Venezuela without Huguito?” and he responds “You will be free, Venezuela,” CONATEL called on the television channel, Televen, to “immediately suspend” the show on the grounds that it promoted “political and racial intolerance, xenophobia, and incitement to commit crimes” – a charge that could lead to civil, criminal, and administrative sanctions, including the suspension or revocation of its license. Televen cancelled the program the same day.