(Washington, DC) - Venezuela should close a recently created office that grants the Chávez administration broad powers to limit public debate, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also stop seeking to discredit human rights defenders and prosecuting critics.
On June 1, 2010, President Hugo Chávez issued a presidential decree creating the Center for Situational Studies of the Nation (Centro de Estudio Situacional de la Nación, CESNA), which has broad powers to limit public dissemination of "information, facts or circumstance[s]" that it decides should be confidential.
In addition, Chávez has called for criminal investigations of human rights organizations that are alleged to receive funding from the United States. The government has also failed to provide protection for human rights defenders who have received threats and has prosecuted critics of government actions or policies.
"Chávez has created a new tool for controlling public debate in Venezuela," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "The new decree would allow the president to block the discussion of topics that are inconvenient for his government, blatantly violating the rights of expression and to information, which are at the heart of a democratic society."
A New Tool for Censorship
The June 1 decree that establishes CESNA within the Ministry of the Interior and Justice states that the center will "compile, process and analyze" information from government offices and civil society "regarding any aspect of national interest." The center's president, appointed by Chavez and the ministry, has the power to declare that "any information, fact, or circumstance" is "reserved, classified, or of limited release."
The subsequent release by government officials of information that could "compromise the security and defense of the Nation" is subject to criminal penalties, under the Venezuelan National Security Law. The decree includes a clause providing that "laws, rules of procedure, or other norms" may grant the center new powers.
The decree's language is so broad that it could allow the government to block dissemination of information, not only by state entities, but also by non-state actors, including civil society groups and the media. The American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) explicitly prohibits such censorship, and such arbitrary restrictions on the right to receive and impart information are incompatible with Venezuela's obligations, as a party to the ACHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Harassment of Human Rights Defenders
Human rights defenders have recently been subject to harassment after they criticized government policies as part of their work:
- Since November 2009, the Venezuelan government has been under instruction from the Inter American Court of Human Rights to take measures to protect Humberto Prado, director of the nongovernmental organization Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones), who was facing a "grave risk for his life and integrity." The government never adopted the measures. On May 20, Prado participated in a peaceful demonstration in front of the Supreme Court with families of people in detention, protesting long delays in judicial procedures and prison violence. A week later, seven unknown individuals dressed in black, with sunglasses, and riding motorcycles without license plates, appeared at his apartment building when Prado was not home, and asked a building employee for the "director of prisons."
- On May 6, Rocío San Miguel, president of the group Citizen Watch (Control Ciudadano), in a television appearance, denounced that military officials were members of Chávez's political party (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), a practice that is prohibited by the Venezuelan Constitution. The next day an unmarked car whose occupants she did not recognize began to follow her while she was driving with her daughter. She then received repeated threats via Twitter, including one claiming, "I am following you." San Miguel sought protection from the government, but none has been provided.
A recent report by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights documented that there "continues to be a climate of hostility and threats against the life and physical integrity of human rights defenders in Venezuela."
President Chávez and his allies in the National Assembly are seeking to push through legislation that would, if enacted, allow arbitrary government interference in the operations of human rights organizations, including fund-raising. A bill aimed at creating closer government scrutiny and control of nongovernmental organizations is pending. In addition, on July 14, Chávez stated that prosecutors should "thoroughly investigate" the "millions and millions of dollars" that the US State Department gives to Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations. His statements were made a day after a pro-Chávez organization presented a formal complaint before prosecutors, seeking an investigation into funding received by Espacio Público and the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad, two leading groups in Venezuela that monitor human rights and freedom of expression.
"The Chávez administration should stop seeking to discredit human rights defenders, and instead should take steps to ensure that they are able to question government policies without reprisals," Vivanco said. "And there is no excuse for delay in providing effective protection to people who have received threats."
Criminal Prosecutions of Critics
Several people are being prosecuted, or have been convicted, for criticizing the government. For example:
- On June 11, Francisco Perez, a journalist, was sentenced to 3 years and 9 months in prison, lost his professional certification, and was ordered to pay a fine of almost $20,000 for publishing an article in March 2009 stating that the mayor of Valencia had hired his wife and son in high-level positions in the local government, according to local nongovernmental organizations. In 2005, Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly revised the criminal code to increase the number of public officials benefiting from the protection of laws against insulting officials and greatly increased penalties, including prison terms, for criminal defamation.
- On May 6, a prosecutor charged Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, a former governor of the state of Zulia and member of an opposition political party, with "public incitement [to violate laws] endangering public tranquility" and with "publicizing false information" for criticizing the Chávez administration during a television interview in March. Álvarez Paz had said that, "Venezuela has turned into a center of operations that facilitates the business of drug trafficking." He was in pretrial detention for almost two months, was released on May 13, and went on trial on May 28.
Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the critical TV station Globovisión, is being investigated for criticizing Chávez in a public statement in Aruba. Zuloaga said Chávez had undermined free expression by closing media outlets, and had "ordered the shooting" of demonstrators during the April 2002 coup against Chávez. On June 3, Chávez spoke on television about Zuloaga's statements and said that anywhere else, he would be in jail. Chávez said that, "[in Venezuela], we have a structural flaw in the system... I am not going to sue a bourgeois, but we have a system that should put things in their place." Chávez also mentioned that Zuloaga was accused of irregularities in his car sales business, which "was a crime," but he "remaine[d] free." On June 11, the judge in charge of the investigation into the alleged irregularities in Zuloaga's car sales business issued an arrest warrant for Zuloaga and his son, despite the fact that, according to Zuloaga's lawyer, the investigation had been stalled for several months. On June 29, prosecutors formally charged Zuloaga and his son with two crimes related to the car sale business. Zuloaga is considering seeking asylum in the United States.