Press Release

IACHR and the Special Rapporteur Express Deep Concern over the Stigmatization and Judicial Harassment against Three Media Outlets in Venezuela

August 24, 2015

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression express their deepest concern about the repeated stigmatizing statements and judicial harassment by high-ranking government officials of Venezuela made in recent months against the media outlets El Nacional, La Patilla,Tal Cual and their board. The IACHR urges the State to cease these acts of harassment that deepen the deterioration of the right to freedom of expression in the country and threaten media outlets and independent journalists in Venezuela.

On January, 2015 the newspapers El Nacional, La Patilla and Tal Cual replicated information from an article originally published by the Spanish newspaper ABC. The articles contained quotes and pictures of the Spanish newspaper report referring to US authorities investigating Congressman Diosdado Cabello's alleged ties to drug trafficking. The media outlets also replicated other articles published by international newspapers which provided additional information on the same subject.

On April 21, 2015, Congressman Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, filed a lawsuit against Miguel Henrique Otero, Alberto Federico Ravell, Teodoro Petkoff and the rest of the board of El Nacional, La Patilla and Tal Cual for the crime of "continued aggravated defamation" against him, due to the replication of the information gathered and disseminated by ABC on his alleged involvement in drug trafficking. On April 25, 2015 the tribunal in Caracas responsible for this case, admitted the lawsuit and ordered the prohibition to leave the country and the regime of periodic presentation before the court against all of the accused.

On August 12, 2015 the Justice informed that had admitted the civil action for moral damages filed by Congressman Diosdado Cabello against El Nacional, La Patilla and Tal Cual, and  which according to La Patilla is for one billion bolivares (between 5 and 78 million US dollars, depending on the exchange rate used) plus legal costs. They were also notified about the measure prohibiting the transfer and encumber of assets under court orders. This new civil suit was motivated by the replication of Spanish ABC’s article by the aforementioned newspapers.

In addition to this, El Nacional, Tal Cual and La Patilla, its journalists and managers particularly Miguel Henrique Otero, Alberto Federico Ravell and Teodoro Petkoff were verbally attacked and insulted by high-ranking government officials, jeopardizing the exercise of their profession as journalists. Otero, Petkoff and Ravell on several occasions have been insulted and characterized as "conspirators" by Diosdado Cabello and President Maduro through public media outlets with wide coverage. Both public officials also revealed details of theirs activities in Venezuela and abroad.

The Commission and the Inter-American Court has established that the stigmatizing statements made by high-ranking public officials against individuals exercising their freedom of expression places them in a position of greater relative vulnerability vis-à-vis the State and certain sectors of society. The repetition of said statements contributes to aggravating an environment of hostility, intolerance or animosity toward these individuals among certain sections of the population.

The Inter-American case law in different occasions has recognized that freedom of expression grants the directorship of the media, as well as the journalists who work for those media, the right to investigate and disseminate events of public interest, and that in a democratic society, the press has the right to inform freely on the activities of the State and to criticize the government, since the public has a corresponding right to be informed of what goes on in the community.  It has also been recognized that journalists have the right to impart information, in their country, on matters of legitimate public interest that are available in the foreign press.

The Commission has also stated that the use of criminal law - the State’s main coercive power - to punish, suppress and discourage expression that is critical of the actions of State authorities or on issues that are in the public interest is not compatible with the American Convention . In particular, the “threat or imposition of a prison sentence based on desacato or criminal defamation laws could have a chilling effect not only for communicators but for society as a whole.”

With regard to the fear of a disproportionate civil penalty, the Inter-American Court has stated that it “may be, in any case, equally or more intimidating and inhibiting for the exercise of freedom of expression than a criminal punishment, since it has the potential to compromise the personal and family life of an individual who accuses or, as in the present case, publishes information about a public official, with the evident and very negative result of self-censorship both in the affected party and in other potential critics of the actions taken by a public official.”

The Commission notes that with regard to due process, this situation is exacerbated by the communiqué released by the Supreme Court of Justice, the highest judicial authority in Venezuela, regarding the facts that sustain the complaint against the proposed beneficiaries, which is being examined by a lower Court. On its website the Court expressed its solidarity with the president of the Legislative Assembly of Venezuela and without any due process or hearing by that court of the issue, advanced their opinion regarding the dissemination of such information “due to the lack veracity, carries sanctions under national law.”

The Office of the Special Rapporteur expressed its concerns in September 2014 for the deterioration of the right to freedom of expression in Venezuela, in light of the “continued stigmatization by high-level public officials of critical media outlets and journalists, punitive lawsuits and the dismissal of journalists, and the reported blocking of the internet signal of media outlets.”

The Commission and the Office of the Special Rapporteur considers that in the context of an election year and facing a reduction of pluralism and decreased independent media, it is urgent to cease verbal and judicial harassment, which restricts the free flow of ideas and opinions. In this context, the accumulation of factors and State actions aimed at encroaching upon the independent media are of great concern to the Commission and also pose a very significant threat to independent and investigative journalism, to freedom of expression and to the free flow of information available to the public in Venezuela, ahead of the elections to be held in December 2015.

In this regard, the Commission calls upon the State of Venezuela to adhere to the strictest international standards on freedom of expression in order to guarantee the full enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and due process by media outlets and journalists without arbitrary interventions.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.

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 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. 093/15