Venezuela’s official government press agency has published an article that distorts Human Rights Watch’s position on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

The article, published on October 23 by Venpres on the website, quoted Americas Division Executive Director José Miguel Vivanco as saying that “Venezuela enjoys full democracy and freedom of expression.” Taken out of context and used as a headline for an article defending the government’s proposed Bill on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, the quotation misinterprets the opinion of Human Rights Watch.

At a recent breakfast in Washington with Venezuelan authorities, Vivanco offered strong criticisms of both the draft law and of the country’s other obstacles to freedom of expression. He noted that the proposed law contains repressive provisions that could stifle the public debate and foster self-censorship in the media. He also expressed concern about the recent confiscation of broadcasting equipment from Globovisión.

Vivanco specifically rebutted remarks made by Jesse Chacón, Minister of Communications and Information, who said that there is no norm in Venezuelan legislation at present that penalizes criticism of government authorities (desacato). As Vivanco pointed out, the Venezuelan Supreme Court has expressly declared the desacato norms in the country’s Criminal Code to be constitutional. In doing so, the Court ignored Venezuela’s international treaty obligations to protect free expression.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly stated that Venezuelans enjoy ample margins of freedom of expression. It has pointed out that the country’s major newspapers and television channels are highly critical of or even opposed to the current government, and do not hesitate to express their views. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch has also firmly opposed actions or legislation that might restrict this freedom.

In a letter sent to President Hugo Chávez on July 1, for instance, Human Rights Watch criticized the investigations opened by the Ministry of Infrastructure against RCTV, Globovisión, Televen and Venevisión. Such investigations, Human Rights Watch stated, could encourage a climate of self-censorship. In the same letter, Human Rights Watch also expressed its concern about the proposed television and radio law.

Human Rights Watch believes that, with a recall referendum currently under discussion in Venezuela, the democratic benefits of an open public debate are more than ever crucial. It therefore urges the government to firmly avoid infringing on the freedom that Venezuelans currently have to express their views.