Freedom of Expression






Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, August 19, 2010—The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States (OAS), Catalina Botero, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, believe that the decision by a Venezuelan court to prohibit the written press from publishing content that could be considered "violent" or "aggressive," for a one-month period, constitutes an act of prior censorship, which seriously compromises the right to freedom of expression in that country.


According to the information received, on Friday, August 13, the Caracas newspaper El Nacional published a photograph on its front page that showed a group of cadavers in a pile, as an illustration for a news story on "crime in Venezuela" and "the pile-up of bodies" in a Caracas morgue.


That same day, Venezuela's Office of the Public Ombudsman filed an action for protection against the newspaper in a court for the protection of children and adolescents, to order the paper to refrain from publishing images "of violent, bloody, or grotesque content" that could negatively affect minors. A day later, the Public Ministry filed a similar petition and launched a criminal investigation over the same facts.


In solidarity with the newspaper, the daily Tal Cual published the same photograph. As a result, the Ombudsman's Office asked the court to extend the protection action it had filed to all written-media outlets in the country.


On August 16, the competent court barred El Nacional from "publishing images, information, and advertisements of any type that contain blood, weapons, messages of terror, physical assaults, images that evoke content about war, and messages about deaths that could alter the psychological well-being of boys, girls, and adolescents," until a decision on the merits was made on the action for protection. A day later, the same court barred Tal Cual "and all other written communications media," for one month, from "publishing images of violent, bloody, [or] grotesque content, whether about crime stories or not, which could in one way or another violate the psychical and moral integrity" of minors.


The American Convention on Human Rights prohibits prior censorship, except when it comes to legal control of public entertainments for the sole purpose of regulating access to them for the moral protection of childhood and adolescence. Likewise, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have established that vague or imprecise limits on freedom of expression run contrary to the guarantee of this right, since they can be used to justify arbitrary decisions that illegitimately restrict the flow of ideas and opinions.


 The OAS and UN rapporteurs for freedom of expression manifest their concern over the decision of the court in question, given that it constitutes an act of prior censorship which, moreover, imposes limits that are so vague and imprecise that they block the written press from being able to publish any information that could upset or annoy the government authorities. If this judicial decision stands, it will force the news media to refrain from reporting on a wide range of issues of public interest that Venezuelan society has the right to know.


The protection of the physical and emotional well-being of childhood is a central aim of the community of nations, but this purpose cannot give rise to the imposition of prior-censorship measures outside the framework established in international human rights law, or to restrictions that are so ambiguous that they could serve as a pretext for blocking publication of information and ideas that society has the right to receive, even though they may be annoying or uncomfortable for some public officials.


The OAS and UN rapporteurs for freedom of expression urgently call on the Venezuelan authorities to review the decisions that have been adopted against the news media and to reestablish the full guarantees for the exercise of freedom of expression.


The two rapporteurs are conducting an official visit to Mexico, which will end on August 25.