Commissioners: Tracey Robinson, Santiago Canton, Rodrigo Escobar Hill, Felipe Gonzalez, Catalina Botero
Participants: State of Venezuela, Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB), Asociación Civil Espacio Público, Colegio Nacional de Periodistas de Venezuela, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa, Venezuela (SNTP)
Topics: Right to Freedom of Expression
In response to direct assaults, intimidations, restrictions, and limitations on media coverage in Venezuela, petitioners from journalistic groups and unions, human rights organizations, and academia joined on March 27, 2012 to present a case for freedom of expression to the Commission. Petitioners requested the state take action to stop smear campaigns of journalists, to prevent judicial censorship of the media, to ensure free access to public information, to investigate illegitimate government use of media outlets, and to punish perpetrators of crimes against the media. Representatives from the State of Venezuela were also present.
Representing the petitioners, SNTP cited numerous attacks on journalists covering public demonstrations, ostensibly to prevent broad public knowledge of the demonstrations. Other allegations include hacking journalist’s emails to release sources and private information, and imposing administrative barriers to reporting. In 2011 alone there were 313 alleged violations of freedom of expression, of which 61% were allegedly perpetrated by the state, putting journalists and other press workers at serious risk.
Colegio Nacional de Periodistas de Venezuela then pointed to 24 complaints filed from Jan. through Dec 2011 alleging lack of media access to the government. A select few media outlets are given access, limiting citizens’ access to information that should be public. When the government does respond to requests for information, the requests are inhibited by regulations requiring that journalists state reasons for requesting information, and information is then released in proportion to how it will be used.
Journalistic persecution has cumulated in widespread self-censorship. Though the petitioners claim that newspapers have changed editorial lines after intimidation and have been persecuted for criticizing the government, petitioners acknowledge that such incidents are not readily visible and therefore have a gradual negative impact. Petitioners allege this is directly attributable to the Executive Branch, and is a scourge on the democratic concept of a free press. Asociación Civil Espacio Público also pointed to the lack of action from the Office of the Prosecutor, even though complaints have been filed. They also mentioned the recurring problem of mandatory government broadcasts on television and radio that preempt private programming for political purposes.
Petitioners cited comments by President Chavez encouraging journalists to exercise “responsibility” when reporting on a recent river pollution incident, and contend that this “responsibility” includes a requirement that journalists verify information through the government before publishing, which petitioners allege amounts to censorship, and violates the Venezuelan constitution.
The State began its response by addressing intimidation, contending that there are no journalists currently in jail in Venezuela, and this problem no longer exists. Journalists that complain of intimidation may feel subjectively intimidated, but the source is the mass media organizations, ruled for many years by a nexus of wealth and power concentrated in several families. Members of the media are therefore forced to work within the political parameters of these media organizations, and self-censorship often results.
Furthermore, the government contended that it is excluded from the media, citing the inability of the state representatives to write in many publications. The state alleged that this problem exists because only about three newspapers do not belong to the political opposition in Venezuela, and encouraged the petitioners to “refrain from talking about their own sins” (translated).
The state contended that its limitations on media are in line with international standards. A journalist does not have to be present in every public meeting, as the government will provide full and accurate press releases with the information sought. The state analogized to the duty of a judge to not disclose how he/she will rule in a case.
Furthermore, the government has a right to broadcast, and media organizations must remember that they are given access by the government. The media blatantly abused its freedom of expression in the 2002 coup d’état attempt, and such “abuses” are an “Orwellian Nightmare” that no government would tolerate. President Chavez merely “urged” the media to be responsible in its reporting, recommending that it seek to report the truth, as verified by a competent authority. The state contended that Venezuela’s constitution embodies the principles of Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, and improves it by requiring that such expression only present truth.
Commissioners asked the state to provide an update on the status of ongoing investigations into the abuse of journalists, and mentioned that a reason requirement for journalists who request information is not in line with international standards, nor is journalistic impartiality. Commissioners asked the petitioners for information on ownership of the media, contempt of court rules in Venezuela, and general clarification of allegations.
The petitioners challenged any objective definition of truth, and promised to respond to the Commission’s questions in writing. The state will also respond in writing, and left a published study on freedom of expression for the Commissioners.