(Washington, DC) – The arrest of two prominent critics in retaliation for public statements that were critical of the government is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said today.
“To prosecute someone for speech, which should be protected under any standard of democracy, is a dangerous precedent,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The violations of free speech are likely to be compounded by a trial that falls far short of due process protections, given the government’s political takeover of the Supreme Court.”
Following the issuance of an arrest warrant for Guillermo Zuloaga, president of TV station Globovisión, the state-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela reported today that a court in Caracas had issued an injunction to bar him from leaving the country because of “statements issued during the Inter American Press Association meeting, recently held in Aruba.”
The Bolivarian News Agency, the official news agency, reported that Zuloaga, whose station has frequently been critical of the government, had criticized President Hugo Chávez for undermining freedom of expression by closing media outlets. Radio Nacional Venezuela reported that Venezuela’s attorney general is currently investigating Zuloaga for “disseminating false information, offense, and insulting the President of the Republic.” It also reported that government officials are holding Zuloaga at the Josefa Camejo International Airport in Falcón state until an official commission arrives from Caracas to execute the judicial order forcing him to stay in the country.
Zuloaga’s detention came a day after Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, a former governor of the state of Zulia and a member of the National Assembly, was imprisoned for criticizing the Chávez administration in a TV show issued this month.
“For years, Chávez has been pushing legislation to restrict free speech,” Vivanco said. “Now we seem to be entering a darker period in which he is enforcing these draconian laws.”
“Insult laws,” which criminalize speech deemed to offend the honor of public officials and institutions, directly contravene international human rights norms. The Principles on Freedom of Expression, adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000, provide that the protection of the reputation of public officials should be guaranteed only by civil sanctions. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has held that the use of criminal proceedings for defamation must be limited to cases of “extreme gravity, ” as a “truly exceptional measure” where its “absolute necessity” has been demonstrated, and that in any such case the burden of proof must rest with the accuser.
In 2004, Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of the Supreme Court, which effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. Since the 2004 takeover, the court has repeatedly failed to fulfill its role as a check on arbitrary state action and safeguard of fundamental rights.