September 28 is the International Day for Universal Access to Information. As UNESCO frames it, “Universal Access” is bound up with the right to seek and receive information, an integral piece of the right to free expression.
In Venezuela, there will be very little to celebrate.
The Nicolás Maduro administration downplays egregious abuses by security forces and denies the existence of the country’s humanitarian crisis and the exodus of Venezuelans. It also fails to provide information of public interest, such as accurate statistics on the country’s health crisis. And it is doing its best to ensure no one else does, either.
The Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público, which monitors free speech, submitted 31 information requests to the government in 2017 under the country’s Constitution, which provides for the right of access to information and implementing laws. The requests asked authorities for information on topics ranging from access to drinking water to the police’s budget and the environmental impact of oil spilling by the state-owned company. None have received a response. They have submitted 40 more requests this year, with no luck.
For more than a decade, the Venezuelan government has expanded and abused its power to regulate the media and worked aggressively to reduce the number of dissenting media outlets. Existing laws grant the government power to suspend or revoke concessions to private media if “convenient for the interests of the nation,” allow for shuttering of websites for the vaguely defined offense of “incitement,” and criminalize expression of “disrespect” for high government officials. While a few newspapers, websites, and radio stations continue to criticize the government, fear of reprisals has made self-censorship a pervasive problem.
Given the increasing difficulty independent media outlets face in operating, Venezuelans are turning to the Internet for news. But the state-owned company CANTV —the main internet provider in Venezuela— has in recent months repeatedly blocked access to key news outlets such as La Patilla, El Nacional, and El Pitazo, according to the Venezuelan NGO Redes Ayuda. Moreover, only half of Venezuela’s population has Internet access, says IPYS, another organization monitoring free expression.
The government’s grip is making it harder for the millions who remain in Venezuela to know what is happening in their country. That may not make international headlines, but it’s an important part of what’s made it possible for things to get as bad as they have.