Freedom of Expression

Press Release R135/17

The Office of the Special Rapporteur condemns the closure of more than 50 media outlets in Venezuela without legal guarantees and for reasons related to their editorial line


September 6, 2017


Washington, DC- The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the closure of more than 50 media outlets in Venezuela under procedures that depart from the principles that guarantee freedom of expression, and urges the State to urgently adopt the necessary measures to ensure that the media outlets -both domestic and foreign- can operate in the country with legal guarantees and without any distinction based on their editorial line.


According to information received by the Office of the Special Rapporteur, on August 24, subscription television providers in Venezuela withdrew from the programming grid the Colombian channels Caracol TV and RCN, on orders from the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel). William Castillo, vice minister for International Communication of the Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs, stated in an interview with an official outlet "RCN and Canal Caracol are instruments of a media war who have behaved, in Venezuela, as a machinery of aggression against Venezuelanity and legitimate authorities." The minister accused Caracol TV of committing "a series of very serious crimes, offenses against Venezuela, its authorities, and our laws." A similar criterion would have been used previously to order the suppression of CNN and NTN 24 signals.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur also received information that in the evening hours of Friday August 25, Conatel representatives entered the radio stations 92.9 FM and Mágica 99.1 FM in the city of Caracas and ordered the definitive termination of their transmissions. It was reported that minutes after both media went off air their frequencies were taken by two new stations linked to the official party. The signal of the Caracas radio station 92.9 FM, which had a large audience news programming, was replaced that night by Radio Corazón Llanero, operated by a foundation under the control of an army Captain, ​​the aide-de-camp of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and current member of the National Constituent Assembly. The signal of the Mágica 99.1 FM station was replaced by the station Vinotinto FM, whose owner is until now unknown. On September 5, Conatel reportedly ordered the radio station 88.1 FM, operated by the emblematic educational radio network Fe y Alegria in Maracaibo, to cease its operations. Hours later the decision was revoked without any explanation.


On July 16, ULA TV, the television channel of the Universidad de los Andes in Mérida, had also been closed by Conatel, invoking a lack of documents.


According to the information provided by several organizations, during 2017 at least 49 national radios have been shut down and 5 international television channels have reportedly been withdrawn from national subscription television, by government orders. As the Office of the Special Rapporteur has expressed in previous statements, most of the media operates in Venezuela with their licenses expired and the regulatory body does not have procedures with guarantees for the adjudication and / or renewal of these frequencies.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur reminds the Venezuelan State that any restriction on the right to freedom of expression must be based on a law and be proportionate and strictly necessary to protect legitimate ends in a democratic society. The closure of media outlets as punishment for maintaining a critical editorial line of a government arbitrarily suppresses the right that assists all Venezuelans to express themselves without fear of reprisals and receive plural and diverse information, and it is also a form of indirect censorship under international law.


Although the State has the power of administering the radio spectrum, this must be done in accordance with the basic principles of international human rights law that prohibit the restriction of the right to freedom of expression through abuse of the power to regulate and manage the radio frequencies.


According to these principles, the processes of adjudication, revocation, and renewal of licenses must be strictly regulated by a law and be guided by objective, clear, impartial, public, and compatible criteria with a democratic society; the process must be transparent; the decision granting or denying the request must be duly substantiated; and be subject to proper judicial control. The administration of the radio spectrum must also be guided by the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and should never be used to pressure, reward, or punish a media outlet according to its editorial line or its position concerning the government in charge.


Venezuela had already been condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in June 2015 for breaching these principles when it decided not to renew the concession of the RCTV television channel on May 27, 2007. In the Inter-American Court opinion’s, RCTV's closure involved "a misuse of power, since a State faculty was used with the objective of editorially aligning the media outlet with the government."


The Court also pointed out that the misuse of power in that case "had an impact on the exercise of freedom of expression, not only in the workers and managers of RCTV, but also in the social dimension of that right." In effect, the Court stated "the real purpose was to silence critical voices against the government, which together with pluralism, tolerance, and the spirit of openness, constitute the demand of a democratic debate which, rightly, freedom of expression seeks to protect."


The Office of the Special Rapporteur urgently calls for the reestablishment of the radio stations and television stations that have been shut down, as well as the restoration of all the necessary guarantees for the full exercise of the right to freedom of expression in Venezuela.