Venezuela

Venezuela-Flag1

Flag of Venezuela

By Brian N. Woods

Introduction

Venezuela, a democratic country in South America, has seen many changes to its government throughout the years, most recently as 1999. It has championed its own current constitution as one of the most progressive documents of its kind in the western hemisphere. Although the constitution lays groundwork for democratic values and ideas, not everyone agrees exactly how democratic the government’s practice of the ideology really is. As of 2015, Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index [1] had Venezuela ranked 137 out of 180, falling 20 spots from 2014. Venezuela’s lower than average ranking can be attributed to higher restrictions on press freedoms and coverage of political protests. Many critics, particularly those concerned with freedom of speech and press, have voiced concerns with steps the government has taken to subvertly stronghold the media, intimidate journalists, and jail opposition leaders.

 

History

The country of Venezuela has a long turbulent history that dates back to the era of European exploration by Christopher Columbus. Columbus first sighted the South American mainland at a point in northeastern Venezuela in 1498. The following year explorer Alonso de Ojeda traveled the coast to Lake Maracaibo and named the land “Venezuela” or little Venice. Spanish colonialism quickly took effect and the first settlement was established in 1523. Caracas, the current capital, was founded in 1567 and the colony then became part of a larger region called New Granada in 1717. The area became a haven for illicit activities for smuggling and piracy, particularly on the part of the English and Dutch. [2]

Venezuela first attempted to acquire its independence from Spain in 1810. The revolution only lasted a couple of years and was suppressed when the Spanish military began reconquering the colony, establishing its control. Simón Bolívar, a key leader in the revolution, was instrumental in continuing the fight against Spain for its independence. After being driven out of the colony by Spanish forces in 1815, Bolívar returned a year later with his army and continued on with the revolution. In 1819 New Granada and Venezuela formed the republic of Gran Columbia. This republic only lasted a little over a decade and by 1830 Venezuela seceded from Gran Columbia and formed its own independent republic with the capital city residing in Caracas. [3]

After establishing absolute independence in 1830, Venezuela was ruled by numerous military dictators for the next century. Fighting and conflict within the military structure mostly dominated this period of time, even resulting in civil war. Four distinct political apparatuses have ruled the country since 1936. Each regime has varied radically from its predecessor in political style, development policy, and personnel. Around the mid 1940s, democracy had crept in to the government, lead by the group Democratic Action. 1951 to 1957 saw control of the government fall back into a military dictatorship. Discontent and opposition grew amongst the citizens and eventually the military over-threw the dictator Pérez Jiménez reverting back to its democratic principles. Democracy has proven to be a difficult undertaking for the country. [4]

The current form of the Venezuelan government was established in 1999 in what as referred to as the Bolivarian Revolution, named after Simon Bolívar. The Bolivarian Revolution was leftist-socialist movement spearheaded by Hugo Chavez. After taking power, President Chavez and the government wrote a new constitution that is still in place today. [5] It is worth noting that between 1811 and 1961 Venezuela had a total of 26 constitutions. The previous document from 1961 lasted the longest until its replacement in 1999. [6] Chavez’s rule lasted from 1999 until his death in 2013 when he died of cancer. He was briefly removed from his presidential power for 2 days by a coup in 2002, but quickly regained control. Chavez was criticized by many for consolidating power into in the executive branch, and taking a firm stance against political opponents. After Chavez’s death in 2013, Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s vice president, was elected president and currently holds office. [7] Maduro’s approval rating is very low and he has seen consistent mass protests against his government since 2014.

 

Free Press

Venezuela’s constitution addresses freedom of the press although it does not refer to the “press” exclusively. Article 58 states that “Communications are free and plural, and involve the duties and responsibilities indicated by law. Everyone has the right to timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship, in accordance with the principles of this Constitution, as well as the right to reply and corrections when they are directly affected by inaccurate or offensive information.” [8] This passage clearly gives the press and the citizens of Venezuela the right to intake a variety of information without censorship or restriction. It also gives citizen’s protections in regards to false and defamatory speech. This however has not been the case for much of the past 10 years as the government has slowly closed its grasp on free media and information. Much of the free speech and free press criticism directed at the country has been linked with press and media related issues. Chavez and Maduro’s governments have taken broad steps to suppress news outlets and opposition leaders that speak out against them through different methods such as denial of broadcast licensing, legislation, self-censorship, intimation, and arrests.

In 2004 the Chavez administration and Venezuelan legislature passed a law referred to as “The Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television.” This law was widely criticized, worrying many journalists and broadcasters because of new restrictions it listed. The law bans content that “incite or promote hatred,” “foment citizens’ anxiety or alter public order,” “disrespect authorities,” “encourage assassination,” or “constitute war propaganda.” Critics have suggested these restrictions acted as another tool Chavez had used to impose greater self-censorship in the media, thus narrowing the opposition’s rhetoric. [9] This law was amended in 2010 to encompass electronic media, giving the state broad authority over the Internet. CONATEL, the Venezuelan National Telecommunication Commission, is the state authority that oversees broadcasting laws, regulations, and imposes fines if deemed necessary. [10]

One of the most blatant and controversial moves of censorship of the Chavez administration, came with the decision to deny the renewal of RCTV (Radio Caracas Television) in 2007. RCTV was one of the oldest television stations in the country and a consistent voice of opposition against Chavez and his policies, specifically during his brief removal of power in 2002. The decision to not renew the station’s license was met with a backlash of criticism around Venezuela and throughout the world causing mass protests and demonstrations. [11]

2013 saw the sale of Globovision, Venezuela’s first 24-hour news network and frequent station supporting opposition viewpoints. Globovision had been fined numerous times over the years under Chavez’s administration and seen many of its journalists threatened. The station was sold off to a group of businessmen who had strong ties to the government and President Maduro. Reporters Without Boarders and The Committee To Protect Journals cited Globovision as the only television station in the country left that was critical of the government. [12] Before the sale of Globovision, CONATEL ordered the station to cease broadcasting four particular spots that were highly critical questioning the constitutional legitimacy of holding Maduro’s presidential inauguration without him actually being in the country. [13]

2014 saw mass protesting throughout Venezuela, mostly by younger students and activists who have grown increasing unhappy with the direction of the country. President Maduro pulled the Columbian television station, NTN24, off of the air during the mass anti-government protests. The country has seen a sharp increase in protests due to worsening living conditions, inflation and shortages of basic necessities. Maduro stated that the stations coverage of the protests attempted to “format anxiety about a coup d’état.” [14] The power to remove the station and its coverage was legal under the updated 2010 Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media.

The Inter American Press Association has also been highly critical of the free speech and free press situation in Venezuela in 2014. A report found that the government had arrested, threatened and in some cases tortured journalists. The IAPA report also cited the paper shortage in the country as very concerning. They stated that more than 30 print media organizations had been affected by the shortage and that 12 have dropped out of circulation. The report also criticized the government for not allowing international coverage of the protests and expelling news organizations such as CNN Español and Columbia’s NTN24. CONATEL also threatened national media outlets with sanctions if they covered the protests. [15]

According to Freedom House the atmosphere of private run media has shifted in the past number of years towards greater government influence. Currently there are 10 television networks, 25 radio stations, a news agency, 3 newspapers and a magazine that are state-run. Freedom House lists Venezuela’s press status as “partly free.” [16]

 

Free Speech

When addressing free speech issues in Venezuela, it is important to look at the constitutional guarantees that are set in place by the government. Article 51: Everyone has the right to petition or make representations before any authority or public official* concerning matters within their competence, and to obtain a timely and adequate response. Whoever violates this right shall be punished in accordance with law, including the possibility of dismissal from office.” Article 52: “Everyone has the right to assemble for lawful purposes, in accordance with law. The State is obligated to facilitate the exercise of this right.” Article 57: Everyone has the right to express freely his or her thoughts, ideas or opinions orally, in writing or by any other form of expression, and to use for such purpose any means of communication and diffusion, and no censorship shall be established. Anyone making use of this right assumes full responsibility for everything expressed. Anonymity, war propaganda, discriminatory messages or those promoting religious intolerance are not permitted. Censorship restricting the ability of public officials* to report on matters for which they are responsible is prohibited.” [17] These particular articles of the constitution allow for broad protection of freedom of expression and speech for its citizens. The wording is strong and quite specific to what it intends to protect. The article also clearly states that there shall be no censorship with regards to speaking out against public officials. However, as the evidence will show below, this is not exactly the case.

In 2010 the Chavez administration came under fire when authorities arrested Oswaldo Alvarez, a former state governor and presidential candidate. Alvarez was one of Chavez’s most prominent foes and outspoken critics. Alvarez was jailed for accusing Chavez of having ties to subversive groups throughout Latin America and charged with spreading false information, conspiracy, and inciting hatred. He joined a list of several of Chavez’s political opponents that were either in jail, living in exile, or facing probes. His political party, COPEI, was quoted as saying, “The national government once again using the institutions it has taken over, tries to silence criticism and denunciation by those who do not think like it does.” Chavez’s responded by saying that he will not tolerate illegal use of the Internet or media by his opponents. [18]

In 2013 when Nicolás Maduro was declared the victor in the presidential elections, he urged the Venezuelan media to choose whether they will be “with the nation, peace, the people, or if they will be again with fascism […] and violence.” Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s political opponent, challenged the election results. Protests spread in the country and 150 people were reportedly arrested under “terrorism” charges in the cities of Valencia and Barquisimeto between the 16th and 17th of April. [19] Reporters Without Boarders reported that Venezuela had also taken strong measures to suppress Internet activity. A report released by the agency in 2013 found that CONATEL had ordered authorities to restrict web access to citizens that provided information on the countries unofficial exchange rate with the currency. Reporters Without Boarders found that in February of 2014, CONATEL instructed social media sites, mainly twitter, to filter pictures of anti-government protests taking place. [20]

Espacio Público, a non-government human rights organization, released a report in 2014 calling the free speech situation in Venezuela the “worst year.” According to the report there were a total of 579 violations and 350 cases in terms of freedom of expression. Espacio Público found that there was a 102 percent increase from 2013. [21]

The mass protests in 2014 have also been a target from human rights activists with accusations that the government has used violent tactics to suppress the opposition. Amnesty International released a report in March of 2015 that highlighted the dire situation. The organization had found that since the protest had begun a year earlier, over 40 people had been killed, over 3,000 people were arrested, 1,000 of which still face charges and 27 remain locked up. The violent crackdown on the protesters has been called “militarized” and government forces frequently use rubber bullets, tear gas, and beatings as measures of control. The situation has not gone unnoticed by President Obama. In March 2015, his administration imposed sanctions on several government officials for their role in the anti-government crackdowns. [22]

Even as recently as February 2015, Maduro has come under international criticism for arresting opposition leader and mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma. Maduro alleged that Ledezma and his followers were involved in a U.S. led plan to overthrow the government. The U.S State Department even released a statement that said it is “deeply concerned by what appears to be the Venezuelan government’s effort to escalate intimidation of its political opponents by rounding up these prominent leaders of the opposition.” [23]

 

Critical Comparison 

When comparing the United States and Venezuela on issues of free speech and free press, the U.S. is undoubtedly much more progressive in its stance and practices, even though the two countries are democracies. However, the United States is not perfect. As of 2015 the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index had the United States ranked number 49 out of 180, down three spots from 46 in 2014. The downgrade comes from the detention of at least 15 journalists during the Ferguson protests and for the judicial harassment of a New York Times reporter involving a CIA officer providing him with classified information. [24] Even though the Untied States had slipped from the previous year, its consistent ranking in the mid 40’s proves that it is still a work in progress.

The citizens in the United States are allowed a considerable amount of freedoms when it comes to expression, speech, and press. The founding fathers, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in particular, were well aware of the importance that freedom of speech possesses and how it can empower the common man. Their intentions were that all citizens (mainly white men) would not be bound by oppression of the ruling establishment, and ensure the necessary means to let their voices be heard by fellow citizens and the government. The First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution provides protection for the citizens of the United States to criticize the government, burn the flag, peacefully assemble, speak out-even when it might be unpopular, and publish controversial information. Even though these freedoms have not always been as established at the state and federal level as they are today, they have laid the foundation for democracy to flourish and given strong support to the ideas that everyone has the right to be heard.

The Venezuelan government’s constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press for its citizens has been a declining battle in the Chavez/Maduro eras. It is quite evident that while the citizens of Venezuela do have considerable access to media, internet outlets, and press that is not state controlled, the current governmental entities are trying their best to suppress what they can while walking a very fine line. The passing of the “Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media” in Venezuela has a very similar overtone to that of the Sedition Act of 1798 and its cousin, the Sedition Act of 1919 in the United States. Both the ““Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television, and Electronic Media” and Sedition Acts are laws in which the government can prohibit public opposition. The Sedition Act of 1798 states that the government can fine or imprison anyone who decides to “write, print, utter, or publish any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. As mentioned above, the Venezuelan law states that anyone can be arrested for “foment citizens’ anxiety or alter public order,” “disrespect authorities,” “encourage assassination,” or “constitute war propaganda.” The Sedition Acts did not last very long in the United States, no more than 3 years each. In the United States case of Brandenburg v Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling ensured that sedition legislation, like those passed in 1789 and 1919, would unlikely get passed today by establishing protection for inflammatory speech that does not cause to incite imminent lawless action. Venezuela’s “Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television, and Electronic Media” is still in effect and appears to have no end in sight. Venezuela still has a very long way to go, and until the government decides to alter or remove the law, the citizens and press of the country are still in danger for speaking out against the regime that holds power.

The United States Supreme Court has gone to great lengths to protect the press from censorship. The 1971 case of the New York Times v. United States, or better known as the Pentagon Papers case, established that the press in the U.S. had the right to publish classified materials barring prior restraints. The case involved a NYT reporter receiving and publishing classified documents from someone inside the intelligence community about the government’s actions during the Vietnam War and previous military operations in the region. This particular victory for the press was monumental in ensuring the presses role in holding the government accountable for its actions. Even though the Venezulan constitution guarantees, “Everyone has the right to timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship,” the practice of intimidation and oppression of the press during Chavez and Maduro administrations, have proven that the Venezuelan government is not held to task in these regards. They have gone to great lengths to suppress many different forms of criticism and information in the media. The two countries are quite far apart from one another when it comes to practicing what they preach.

 

Conclusion

Although Venezuela has a democracy set into place, the country and government are heading in the wrong direction when it comes to First Amendment liberties. It does not matter how well worded the constitution may be or how strong the government’s rhetoric is concerning its progressive stance on free speech and free press. The facts show that the country is sliding further away from the rights of its citizens to speak out against the policies of the government and inching closer into the hands of the state controlled machine. The current governmental entity under Chavez and his predecessor Maduro, is working incredibly hard to limit information that is counter intuitive to the message it wants the people of Venezuela to have access to. As long as this continues to happen, the government will continue to be thrust into the international spotlight with its violations of freedom of speech and press.

 

References

  1. https://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php
  2. Collier’s Encyclopedia. Venezuela. Pg. 73-74. P.F Collier, L.P. Vol 23. 1995. Print.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica. Venezuela. Pg. 476-478. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2010. Print.
  4. Blank, Eugene Blank. Venezuela: Politics in a Petroleum Republic. Pg. 20-30 New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984. Print.
  5. Corrales, Javier and Michael Penefold. Dragon In The Tropics: Hugo Chávez And The Political Economy Of Revolution In Venezuela. Pg. 1-3 Washington D.C: Bookings Institution Press, 2011. Print
  6. http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/70
  7. Chaplin, Ari. Chávez’s Legacy: The Transformation From A Democracy To A Mafia State. Pg 58-60. Lanham, MD: University Press Of America Inc., 2014. Print.
  8. Venezuela Constitution (English Translation)
  9. https://cpj.org/2010/12/cpj-condemns-two-venezuelan-media-laws.php
  10. http://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/2894/en/venezuela:-law-on-social-responsibility-of-radio,-television-and-electronic-media
  11. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/01/world/americas/01venez.html
  12. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/29/the-fall-of-the-last-bastion-of-free-speech-in-venezuela/
  13. http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/12/venezuela-halt-censorship-intimidation-media
  14. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/world/americas/venezuelas-leader-pulls-foreign-channel-over-protest-coverage.html
  15. http://panampost.com/belen-marty/2014/10/20/press-association-points-finger-at-latin-americas-free-speech-violators/
  16. https://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedompress/2014/venezuela#.VSlc7ZT-U0
  17. Venezuela Constitution (English Translation)
  18. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/03/23/AR2010032304135.html
  19. http://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/3713/en/venezuela:-critical-situation-for-free-speech-post-election
  20. https://knightcenter.utexas.edu/blog/00-15908-2014-was-%E2%80%9Cworst-year%E2%80%9D-freedom-expression-venezuela-says-espacio-publico
  21. https://news.vice.com/article/rights-abuses-rampant-in-venezuela-crackdown-on-anti-government-protests-report-says
  22. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/uproar-venezuela-over-opposition-leaders-arrest-n309661
  23. https://index.rsf.org/#!/index-details/USA

(This essay was last updated on April 30, 2015.)

 

 

 

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