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Venezuela's Supreme Court Upholds Prior Censorship and "Insult Laws"

A decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court upholding prior censorship is
a major setback for freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

"This is an extremely disappointing decision," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "The court has endorsed an antiquated concept of public order that disregards essential freedoms on which democracy is based."

In a ruling issued on July 15, the court held that although the Venezuelan Constitution prohibits censorship, it nonetheless had an implicit exception for prior censorship of war propaganda, and of material that was discriminatory or promoted religious intolerance. The court also declared that laws protecting public authorities and institutions from insulting criticism (so-called insult laws or leyes de desacato, in Spanish) were constitutional.

The ruling was made in a case brought by a private citizen who argued that several articles of the country's Criminal Code violated the Venezuelan Constitution.

Under Articles 148 and 149 of the Venezuelan Criminal Code, people can be imprisoned for insulting "by speech or in writing" the president, the vice-president, the president of the legislature, the chief justice, and numerous other government officials, or by showing them "lack of respect in any other way." Article 150 prohibits anyone from insulting the legislature, the judiciary or the cabinet.

The higher the rank of the offended party, the stiffer the sentence: anyone who insults the president publicly can be jailed for up to three years and three months.

In upholding these laws, the court reasoned that "anyone who presents a state dignitary in an undignified light tends to weaken the functions they exercise, at least in public opinion, potentially contributing to a state of pre-anarchy."

Other articles of the Criminal Code whose constitutionality was upheld give special protection to legislators and public servants, including the police, from offensive criticism.

Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights states that propaganda for war and advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred shall be punishable by law. But it also expressly prohibits prior censorship, establishing that those who violate lawful restrictions on expression be held responsible by law only after the event.

In 1995 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report on insult laws that concluded that "the special protection desacato laws afford public functionaries from insulting or offensive criticism is not congruent with the objective of a democratic society to foster public debate."

Several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Peru, have followed the Commission's recommendations and removed insult provisions from their statute books. The Venezuelan Supreme Court, however, took pains to point out that it did not have to follow the Commission's recommendations.

"It bodes ill for Venezuelan democracy that the court views criticism and a vibrant public debate as a possible threat to public order. Freedom of expression is a vital guarantor of a functioning democracy, "said Vivanco.

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