Human Rights Watch urges the Chávez government to remove obstacles to judicial independence, freedom of expression, and the independence of civil society organizations. Many of our recommendations, detailed below, were included in A Decade Under Chávez, our previous report on the country. None have yet been adopted by the Chávez administration or by his supporters in other branches of government.
If Venezuela is to fulfill the promise of the 1999 constitution, it should amend or repeal policies, laws, and practices that undermine its citizens’ basic rights.
Regarding Judicial Independence
At this point, there is no easy way to reverse the damage done to the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary by the 2004 court-packing law. Given the circumstances, Human Rights Watch recommends as an extraordinary measure that the current National Assembly implement a one-time ratification process to legitimize the composition of the Supreme Court, for example, by requiring a two-thirds majority affirmative vote for each justice whose appointment occurred after the passage of the 2004 Supreme Court law. Measures should be taken to permit the lawful removal of any justice who does not receive a two-thirds majority vote during this process. Any resulting vacancies should be filled through a selection process that is open, transparent, and ensures the broadest possible political consensus.
Once the National Assembly has completed the ratification process, the new Supreme Court should seek to reassume its role as an independent guarantor of fundamental rights. Specifically, it should:
- Resolve quickly and impartially appeals involving allegations of infringements of fundamental rights, particularly if delay would result in irreparable harm;
- Ensure that justices who face clear conflicts of interests in particular cases recuse themselves from adjudication of those cases to ensure that all decisions are adopted impartially and are seen to be adopted impartially;
- Recognize the jurisdiction and binding rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; and
- End the practice by the Judicial Commission of appointing judges who lack security of tenure and then removing them at will, and instead adopt mechanisms to ensure that all judges are appointed to positions with security of tenure through open and public competitions as required by the Bolivarian constitution.
More immediately, the National Assembly should:
- Repeal the provisions of the Supreme Court law that undermine the court’s independence by allowing justices to be removed by a simple majority vote.
The Attorney General’s Office should:
- Investigate, and hold to account, public officials who may have abused their authority in violation of Article 67 of the Law Against Corruption, or similar provisions, by improperly using the criminal justice system against perceived political opponents as documented in this report; and
- Drop all charges against Judge María Lourdes Afiuni and seek her immediate release from house arrest; and investigate, and hold to account, public officials who may have abused their authority in violation of Article 67 of the Law Against Corruption, or similar provisions, by improperly procuring her arrest, prosecution, and prolonged detention.
Regarding Freedom of Expression
Venezuelan authorities should amend or repeal laws that grant government officials undue power to censor and punish critics, and refrain from pursuing policies and practices that undermine freedom of expression, including those that generate undue pressure for self-censorship among journalists and broadcasters.
The National Assembly should repeal all legal provisions that contravene international law and norms on freedom of expression. Specifically, it should:
- Repeal all insult laws (desacato);
- Repeal all laws that criminalize defamation of public officials and institutions;
- Ensure that civil damages for defamation are limited so as to avoid a chilling effect on free expression;
- Amend the language of article 29(1) of the Broadcasting Law to ensure that the offense of incitement is clearly defined and restricted to situations in which broadcasters directly and explicitly incite the commission of crimes; and
- Amend the language of article 27 of the Broadcasting Law to ensure that existing restrictions on free speech are not applicable to the internet.
The government should ensure that broadcasting laws are enforced impartially and with full respect for due process guarantees. Specifically, it should:
- Ensure that investigation and sanctioning of alleged infractions of broadcast laws is carried out by an impartial and independent body protected from political interference; and
- Ensure that alleged violators of broadcast regulations are guaranteed the right to contest the charges against them.
To safeguard the right of access to information and increase government transparency, the government should:
- Introduce legislation to implement effectively and without discrimination the constitutional right of public access to information held by public entities;
- Respond in a timely manner to information requests presented by journalists, human rights defenders, and members of the general public;
- Provide public information on the role and activities of the Center for Situational Studies of the Nation, ensuring that they comply with international standards on access to information; and
- Revoke administrative provisions expanding the definition of what constitutes confidential or reserved information.
To ensure the impartiality of decisions to grant, renew, and revoke broadcasting licenses, the government should:
- Give applicants for concessions and frequencies equal opportunities to present their cases through a fair process that adheres to basic due process, including by introducing safeguards against political interference.
In addition, the government should:
- Restrict the obligation on private media to broadcast official statements, including presidential speeches, to occasions which conform with international legal standards, i.e. the broadcast should have a legitimate purpose for the public good, and the content, scope and length of the broadcast should be necessary and proportionate to achieve the public good .
Regarding Human Rights Defenders
The Venezuelan government should abandon its aggressively adversarial posture toward human rights defenders and civil society organizations.
Specifically, the president and high-level officials should:
- Refrain from unfounded attacks on the credibility of human rights defenders and civil society organizations;
- Publicly retract unfounded public statements against rights advocates and organizations; and
- Engage constructively with human rights defenders in seeking solutions to address Venezuela’s human rights problems.
The National Assembly should:
- Repeal the Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self Determination; and
- Amend article 4 of the Organic Law on Social Control to clarify that obligatory adherence to "socialist principles" does not apply to human rights defenders or civil society organizations that work to protect and promote human rights in the country.
In addition, the Attorney General’s Office should:
- Only open investigations in which it independently considers that suspects have committed a crime, without undue interference of other branches of government;
- Conclude outstanding criminal investigations against human rights defenders and civil society representatives in an impartial, objective and timely manner;
- Refrain from filing unsubstantiated or unwarranted charges against human rights defenders and civil society leaders; and
- Conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations after human rights defenders report attacks, threats, or harassment they have suffered.
Regarding the Inter-American Human Rights System
All branches of government in Venezuela should actively collaborate with international human rights monitoring bodies to ensure Venezuelans can have access to alternative mechanisms to redress abuses when local remedies are ineffective or unavailable.
Specifically, Venezuelan authorities should:
- Recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and adopt all necessary measures to comply with and implement its rulings;
- Allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to conduct in-country research in Venezuela; and
- End its international campaign to undermine the independence, autonomy, and powers of the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights.