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Amendments to Venezuela’s Criminal Code that entered into force last week may stifle press criticism of government authorities and restrict the public’s ability to monitor government actions, Human Rights Watch said today.

“By broadening laws that punish disrespect for government authorities, the Venezuelan government has flouted international human rights principles that protect free expression,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “While countries across Latin America are moving to repeal such laws, Venezuela has enacted further restrictions on the press that will shield officials from public scrutiny.”

The amendments extend the scope of existing provisions that make it a criminal offense to insult or show disrespect for the president and other government authorities. Venezuela’s measures run counter to a continent-wide trend to repeal such “disrespect” (or “desacato”) laws. In recent years, Argentina, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Peru have already repealed such laws, and other countries like Chile and Panama are currently considering legislation that would do so.

The human rights bodies of the United Nations and of the Organization of American States have repeatedly urged states to repeal such provisions.

The president, vice-president, government ministers, state governors and members of the Supreme Court are already protected from disrespect under the law. The new provisions extend this protection to legislators of the National Assembly, members of the National Electoral Council, the attorney general, the public prosecutor, the human rights ombudsman, the treasury inspector, and members of the high military command.

Anyone convicted of offending these authorities could go to prison for up to 20 months. Anyone who gravely offends the president, on the other hand, can incur a penalty of up to 40 months in prison.

Other amendments increase the penalties for defamation and libel. Penalties for defamation have been increased from a maximum of 30 months of imprisonment to a new maximum of four years if the statement is made in a document distributed to the public. Those convicted would also have to pay a fine of up to 2,000 tax units (currently equivalent to more than US$ 27,000). The penalty for libel rises from a maximum jail term of three months to a new maximum of two years.

These changes to the criminal code follow a Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, which entered force in November and imposes wide-ranging administrative restrictions on radio and television broadcasting.

“These new provisions add to the arsenal of press restrictions already at the government’s disposal,” Vivanco said. “By further criminalizing criticism of government authorities, these laws will restrict the public’s ability to monitor abuse by those in power.”

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