Freedom of Expression

Press Release R61-10


Nº R61/10





Washington, D.C., June 14, 2010 -  The commissioner for Venezuelan matters of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, and the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Catalina Botero Marino, today sent a communication to the Foreign Minister of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro Moros, to express their deep concern over the deterioration of the situation of the right to freedom of expression and to request information on incidents that have occurred in Venezuela over the last week. In particular, Pinherio and Botero expressed concern over the criminal conviction of journalist Francisco "Pancho" Pérez for having published a piece exposing corruption; over the warrant for the arrest of Guillermo Zuloaga, one of the owners of television channel Globovisión, only a few hours after the country’s president criticized the judiciary for allowing Zuloaga to go free; and over the Molotov cocktail attack on the Cadena Capriles news network.


On June 11, 2010, the Fifth Circuit Court of the City of Valencia sentenced a journalist from the city of Carabobo named Francisco "Pancho" Pérez to three years and nine months in prison, political suspension and prohibition to practice journalism, and a monetary fine of slightly more than US$18,000 for the supposed crime of defamation of public officials. According to the information received, the proceedings started after the mayor of Valencia, Edgardo Parra, a member of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), filed charges against the reporter over a column published on March 30, 2009, in the daily newspaper El Carabobeño. In the column, Pérez referred to the presence of the mayor’s family members as contractors in the municipal government. In the letter, the Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur expressed their deep concern over the conviction and recalled that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the IACHR have ruled on numerous occasions against the existence of vilipendio and desacato laws and the use of criminal law to punish opinions and information critical toward public officials. The evident disproportion of the sentence handed down for the publication of a piece that was clearly in the public interest demonstrates the serious state of vulnerability in which freedom of expression in Venezuela finds itself.


Likewise, the Office of the Special Rapporteur received information on a warrant issued on June 11, 2010 by Caracas’ 13th Court of Control for the arrest of one of the owners of the Globovisión network, Guillermo Zuloaga, as well as his son. According to the information received, they are both accused of the crimes of usury and conspiracy for having stored 24 vehicles on their private property. The journalists and owners of Globovisión have been subjected to constant stigmatization and threats from the most senior public officials, as well as attacks from private groups aligned with the government. Guillermo Zuloaga had been detained temporarily on March 25, 2010, in connection with a criminal investigation opened against him for the crime of disrespecting the President of the Republic. The investigation was started after Zuloaga made statements during a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association in Aruba. The arrest warrant was issued on June 11, eight days after the President of Venezuela criticized the judicial branch because Zuloaga was still free. The letter sent to the Venezuelan State by the Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur expressed concern at the detention and recalled that persecution via criminal prosecution for alleged crimes that are not related to the exercise of freedom of expression can constitute a violation of the right if such persecution is demonstrated to be motivated by the political position of the person charged or due to the exercise of their right to freedom of expression.


Finally, the Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur expressed their concern at the Molotov cocktail attack on the headquarters of Cadena Capriles on the night of Monday, June 7, 2010. This attack took place in the context of continuing public statements against various media outlets, their directors, and their journalists, accusing them of practicing "media terrorism," being "destabilizers," "coup conspirators," and of fostering "hateful discourse" that affects the "mental health" of the Venezuelan population. As the Office of the Special Rapporteur has indicated previously, subsequent to these statements, acts of violence against several of these media outlets carried out by private criminal groups have been on the rise. In this respect, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has indicated to the Venezuelan State that such conduct on the part of public officials puts people linked to these media outlets "in a position of greater relative vulnerability before the State and certain sectors of society." In this sense, the absence of model investigations and punishments in the serious and constant attacks suffered by media outlets and journalists in Venezuela due to their editorial stance or news coverage is worrisome.


As the Commission has already stated in its report Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela, the existence of an inadequate legal framework, the Executive’s ever-increasing intolerance toward criticism and dissent, and the judicial branch’s lack of independence and autonomy from the other branches of government are some of the weakest points of Venezuelan democracy and appreciably compromise the guarantee of human rights in that country. In particular, the judicial branch’s lack of independence has allowed the punitive power of the State to be used to criminalize the defense of human rights and peaceful social protest, as well as to persecute critics and political dissidents with criminal prosecution.


The Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur expressed their concern over the situation of the right to freedom of expression in Venezuela and indicated that "spaces for public debate on Venezuelan government authorities are constantly becoming smaller, given the use of instruments like the criminal law to silence critical expression and dissent. In this sense, it is extremely worrying that a journalist would be convicted for the crime of ‘disrespecting a public official’ for publishing an article denouncing a possible act of corruption; or that the criminal law can be used as an indirect method of censoring the owner of one of the only media outlets in Venezuelan that is independent of the government. These facts are another demonstration of the consensus between executive branch and judicial branch authorities on the idea that it is legitimate to silence critics of the government using the criminal law."


In their letter, the Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur urged the State of Venezuela to avoid the use of direct and indirect methods for silencing critical opinions and reports denouncing government authorities, no matter how upsetting or offensive they are. Likewise, they urged the State of Venezuela to immediately take all necessary measures to guarantee that journalist Francisco Pérez and Globovisión President Guillermo Zuloaga, as well as Venezuelan society in general, have the right to freedom of expression, as well as the rights to due process and to be brought to trial before impartial, independent judges committed to applying the provisions of the Venezuelan Constitution and international treaties to which Venezuela is party. Likewise, they urged the Venezuelan authorities to guarantee and protect the lives and physical safety of the journalists, employees, and owners of media outlets.