Freedom of Expression

Press Release R111/11









Washington, D.C., October 21, 2011—The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern over the decision by Venezuela's National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) to sanction the television station Globovisión with a fine of 9,394,314 bolívares fuertes (approximately US$2.1 million) for violating the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television, and Electronic Media.


According to the information received by the Office of the Special Rapporteur, CONATEL's Directorate of Social Responsibility announced on October 18, 2011 that it had imposed a fine on Globovisión equivalent to 7.5% of its 2010 gross income, after finding violations of Articles 27 and 29 of the aforementioned Law on Social Responsibility. The sanction stems from Globovisión's coverage of the events of June 16-19, 2011, related to the situation at El Rodeo Penitentiary. According to the resolution issued on October 18, the Directorate of Social Responsibility concluded that the television station had transmitted "messages that promote alterations of public order, justify crime, incite the existing legal regime, promote hatred for political reasons and foment panic among the citizenry during the days of June 16, 17, 18 and 19, 2011."


The information available to the Office of the Special Rapporteur indicates that Globovisión reported for several days on the events that took place in the vicinity of El Rodeo Penitentiary and the intervention by law enforcement. The coverage included interviews with relatives of inmates, opposition politicians, and State officials.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has expressed its concern over the content of the Law on Social Responsibility and over its most recent reform, which incorporates a broad catalog of restrictions, written in vague and ambiguous language, and establishes more burdensome sanctions for violating these prohibitions. On this point, the Office of the Rapporteur considers it necessary to mention that vague and imprecise legal norms may grant overly broad discretionary powers to the authorities. Such powers are incompatible with the full observance of the right to freedom of expression, because they can be used to support potentially arbitrary acts that can impose disproportionate liability for the expression of news, information, or opinions of public interest. These types of norms, by their very existence, deter the dissemination of news and opinion out of fear of sanctions, and can lead to broad interpretations that unduly restrict freedom of expression. That is why the State must specify the types of conduct that may be subject to imposition of subsequent liability, to ensure that the free expression of uncomfortable ideas or inconvenient information about the authorities' actions is not adversely affected. 


In addition, the Office of the Special Rapporteur has expressed its concern over the lack of guarantees of independence of the agencies responsible for implementing the Law on Social Responsibility. The Office of the Rapporteur notes that the members of CONATEL may be freely appointed and dismissed by the President of the Republic, without any safeguards in place to ensure their independence and impartiality. Moreover, seven of the eleven members of the Social Responsibility Directorate are chosen by the executive branch, and the Law on Social Responsibility does not establish any criteria for appointing the members of this board; nor does it set a fixed term of service or establish specific grounds for their removal from office.


Finally, the Office of the Rapporteur recalls that freedom of expression must be guaranteed not only with regard to the dissemination of ideas and information that are favorably received or considered inoffensive or indifferent, but also with regard to those that offend, shock, unsettle, disturb, or are disagreeable to the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance, and the spirit of openness, without which a democratic society does not exist. In cases in which a State decides to apply civil sanctions in the area of freedom of expression, such sanctions must pursue a legitimate objective authorized under the American Convention on Human Rights and be strictly proportionate to the legitimate aim that justifies them. In particular, financial sanctions must not be so high that they have a chilling effect on the free circulation of information and ideas of all kinds.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur urges the relevant authorities in Venezuela to take into account existing international standards on freedom of expression in reviewing the case of the Globovisión television station.