Freedom of Expression

Press Release R96/11








Washington D.C., August 31, 2011 — The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its deep concern over the decision to temporarily ban circulation of the weekly publication Sexto Poder in Venezuela, as well as over the arrest, detention, and criminal prosecution of the weekly's editorial director and the arrest warrant issued against its publisher. The Office of the Special Rapporteur notes that these actions are contrary to regional freedom of expression standards and generate self-censorship and a palpable chilling effect that impacts not only those directly affected but all media outlets in Venezuela.


According to the information received, on Sunday, August 21, 2011, the weekly publication Sexto Poder published an article titled "Las poderosas de la revolución" ("The Powerful Women of the Revolution"), which was illustrated with a photo montage of six high-level female officials of the State of Venezuela. The story and illustration, of a satirical nature, featured Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega, Ombudswoman Gabriela Ramírez, Comptroller General Adelina González, National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena, and  National Assembly Vice-President Blanca Eekhout, all depicted as cabaret dancers. The objective of the publication was to call attention to the alleged lack of independence of Venezuela's oversight institutions with respect to the national executive branch. Among other things, the publication contended that each of the representatives of the aforementioned institutions "played a specific role in the cabaret directed by Mister Chávez."


Some of the officials in question, as well as other high-level public officials, said the photo montage and text offended "the dignity of Venezuelan women" and constituted "gender-based violence." They claimed that the publication contained "hate speech," which "insulted" the officials and the institutions they represented and even threatened the stability of the Venezuelan government.


After learning of the publication, the Comptroller General is said to have presented a complaint against the journalists before the Prosecutor General’s Office. In less than 24 hours,  the Ninth Court of First Instance with Monitoring Functions of the Criminal Judicial Circuit of Caracas issued a precautionary measure to ban "the publication and distribution by any means" of the weekly. The same court ordered the arrest of the director of Sexto Poder, Dinorah Girón, and of its publisher and general editor, Leocenis García, for alleged violations of Venezuela's Criminal Code as a result of the article's publication. On August 21, agents of the Boliviarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) arrested journalist Girón, who was freed two days later after the Ninth Court ordered her conditional release. However, the court prohibited her from leaving the country and ordered her to appear before the courts every 15 days. She is also prohibited from talking publicly about her case or participating in public gatherings.


According to the information received, Leocenis García promised to turn himself in to the law enforcement authorities if and when the political persecution against the publication ceases.


On August 23, the Office of the Special Rapporter requested information from the Venezuelan State regarding this case. In its response, the State indicated that as a result of the publication, Dinorah Girón is being charged with the crimes of "insult of a public official, public instigation of hatred, and public offense based on gender," while Leocenis García is being charged with "instigation of hatred, insult, and gender-based violence." According to the information provided by the State, these crimes are established in the Criminal Code and in the Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence.


On August 29, the State informed the Office of the Special Rapporteur that the ban on publishing the weekly had been revoked. Nonetheless, the notification established serious limitations that impede Sexto Poder from publishing information that contains graphic or textual material that constitutes "an offense and/or insult to the reputation, or to the decorum, of any representative of public authorities, and whose objective is to expose them to public disdain or hatred." It also prohibited the publication of "humiliating and offensive content against the female gender" and ordered the removal of the copies of the August 20 edition that were at the disposal of the public. On August 28, the weekly could not circulate given that the injunctive measure originally adopted was in effect.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur observes that the decisions of the Venezuelan court impose a measure of prior censorship as well as disproportionate restrictions in a process which does not comport with the requirements of international human rights law.


The American Convention on Human Rights prohibits prior censorship and establishes that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression may only be subject to subsequent impositions of liability, which must be expressly established by law, clearly and with precision; be applied following a judicial proceeding by a body that provides guarantees of independence, impartiality and due process; and be strictly necessary in a democratic society.


Moreover, inter-American standards on freedom of expression expressly prohibit the arrest, incarceration, and criminal prosecution of an individual for having expressed opinions that disturb the authorities. These standards have been developed over the last three decades by the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in response to abuses by the authoritarian regimes of the past in the Americas, and should be guaranteed and safeguarded by all modern democracies. Along these lines, the Inter-American Court has held that freedom of expression must be guaranteed not only with respect to the dissemination of ideas and information viewed as favorable or considered inoffensive or innocuous, but also with respect to those that offend, shock, unsettle, displease, or perturb the State or any segment of the population. It has also held that opinions about public officials are not subject to prosecution or liability, lest a crime of opinion be established, a result that is completely proscribed by the American Convention.


The IACHR, for its part, has established the following in the tenth principle of its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression: "The protection of a person's reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest." In addition, the eleventh principle states that "[p]ublic officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as ‘desacato laws,’ restrict freedom of expression and the right to information."


The case of Sexto Poder is the second in less than two months in which the Venezuelan authorities have applied the Criminal Code to punish the expression of critical or dissenting opinions. Last July 13, a former Governor of the state of Zulia and potential presidential candidate, Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, was sentenced to two years in prison, with conditional release, for the crime of "disseminating false information," as a result of comments he made in a television interview regarding investigations into the alleged presence of drug trafficking and armed groups in Venezuela.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur reminds the Venezuelan authorities that the existence of a free, independent, pluralistic, and diverse media is an essential condition for the proper functioning of a democratic society. It also underscores that it is the State's duty to create the conditions for pluralistic, uninhibited democratic debate, for which there must be guarantees for the free operation of the media and for critical or dissenting speech. Consequently, the Office of the Special Rapporteur urges the Venezuelan authorities to adopt any necessary measures to ensure that this right is respected and guaranteed, in accordance with the international human rights treaties to which Venezuela is a State Party.