IACHR and OSRFE Condemn Attacks Against Human Rights Defenders and Journalists and Warn of the Closure of Democratic Spaces in Venezuela

February 5, 2021

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Washington, D.C.- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (OSRFE) condemned the recent attacks against journalists, the media, and human rights defenders in Venezuela, stressing that these events have contributed to the dizzying pace at which democratic spaces in the country are being shut down. They called on the State to promote an environment of respect for fundamental freedoms that is free of hostilities.

In recent weeks, the IACHR and OSFRE have received reports of raids on the headquarters of several media outlets and human rights and humanitarian organizations. The IACHR was informed that the organization Azul Positivo was raided on January 12, 2021. According to public information, after the raid on their offices in Maracaibo, five members of the organization were reportedly detained and continued to be deprived of their freedom at the time of writing.

Likewise, according to publicly available information, on January 8, 2021, officials at the National Telecommunications Agency (CONATEL) and the National Integrated Customs Administration Service (SENIAT) raided the Caracas branch of VPItv without a warrant. On the pretext of reviewing tax-related documentation for equipment purchased in the early 2000s, CONATEL and SENIAT agents allegedly seized cameras, televisions, and laptops, which forced VPItv to suspend its operations. On the same day, the SENIAT imposed a sanction on El Panorama newspaper for allegedly failing to comply with its formal tax-related duties and shut down its headquarters in the city of Maracaibo for five days.

Furthermore, the IACHR and OSRFE have observed an increase in stigmatizing remarks and discourse by high ranking State authorities against human rights defenders in Venezuela. In this regard, on January 13, a congressperson described human rights organizations as being "instruments to destabilize the people" during a television appearance.

The IACHR and OSRFE have also recorded an increase in stigmatization on some official websites and social media accounts in an attempt to discredit the work of media outlets that receive international cooperation resources. On this point, they learned of a video containing symbols of the Bolivarian National Army that was shared via official Twitter accounts, profiling journalists who work for Efecto Cocuyo and accusing them of being "media mercenaries" because they received financing for their operations from abroad. The National Union of Press Workers (SNTP), the Faith and Happiness Radio Institute, the Center for Justice and Peace (CEPAZ), the organization Public Space, the Institute of Press and Society (IPYS), and Transparency Venezuela have also been the targeted by similar accusations. In this regard, the IACHR and the OSRFE emphasized that all people have the right to request, receive, and use resources individually or collectively with the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms by peaceful means.

The IACHR and the OSRFE are particularly concerned by statements insinuating that foreign funding makes journalists "enemies of the State" or "enemies within." They warned that when such statements are issued by entities or departments that are associated with State security forces, they become particularly aggressive and threatening. Not only do such pronouncements discredit journalists' work, they also create an adverse climate for them to go about this, thus jeopardizing their lives and personal integrity.

In a similar vein, the IACHR and OSRFE expressed their concern over the announcement made by the Minister of Interior and Justice, Carmen Meléndez, on December 14, 2020, regarding the so-called Güiria shipwreck, which occurred earlier that month in the strait between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago and in which 33 people reportedly lost their lives. In response, the Minister stated that "an investigation has begun into media outlets that published extremist information, which was curious in that it preceded the results of the investigation." On this point, the IACHR and the OSRFE considered that statements of this type have a two-fold restrictive effect: on the one hand, they threaten to criminalize those who publish content that the government finds awkward or uncomfortable and, on the other, they insinuate that the media are in some way responsible for the events in the news merely because they report on them promptly.

The IACHR and OSRFE noted once again that stigmatizing statements may contribute to heightening the climate of hostility and intolerance among different sectors of the population. This could impact the lives and personal integrity of defenders by making them more vulnerable. On this point, they repeated that public officials should refrain from making statements that stigmatize human rights defenders or suggest that organizations are acting improperly or illegally simply because they are promoting and defending human rights.

The IACHR also urged the State of Venezuela to foster an environment free of hostilities and respect for the fundamental freedoms of human rights defenders and journalists. In this sense, they underlined the fact that the State's obligations to defenders and the right to defend human rights are directly related to the enjoyment of the rights to life, humane treatment, freedom of expression and association, a fair trial, and judicial protection, as enshrined in various international human rights instruments.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 025/21