In their latest intervention into the debate over freedom of expression in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch has once again got it wrong. In an article entitled “Venezuela: Halt Censorship, Intimidation of Media”, which was predictably picked up by mainstream outlets globally, the New York-based body makes the charge that the Venezuelan government is engaging in “censorship and intimidation of media that challenge the official line regarding President Hugo Chávez’s health and inauguration”. This is further described as part of a strategy to use Venezuela’s Media Responsibility Law to “limit public discussion on issues of national importance”.
To back up their claim, HRW can only find two cases to cite. The first is the opening up of an administrative investigation into pro-opposition TV station Globovision by national telecommunications regulator Conatel on 9 January. The investigation relates to a set of Globovision-made short spots questioning the legality of the delay in President Hugo Chavez’s inauguration, through quoting certain excerpts from the Venezuelan constitution and comments by government figures. Conatel argues that the spots, whose continued broadcasting is prohibited, may have broken article 27 of Venezuela’s Media Responsibility Law, which prevents media outlets from producing information that “generates public anxiety or disturbs public order, acts against the stability of the democratic system, denies the authority of the legitimately constituted authorities, or generates hate or intolerance for political or religious reasons”.
HRW dismiss Conatel’s claim out of hand, with HRW Americas director José Miguel Vivanco quoted as saying, “There is nothing in the content of Globovisión’s broadcasts that could remotely be described as incitement or a threat to public order”. As such, Conatel’s investigation is made to appear as petty and aimed at censoring what is supposedly only a case of a media outlet questioning the government line.
However, both the content of the spots and the political context in which they were produced make HRW’s description of the situation highly contestable. For example, one of the spots begins by showing President Chavez commenting before he went to Cuba for surgery in December that if he is unable to continue as president, new elections should be called. Then, the spot goes on to quote and underline the first half of article 231 of the constitution, which states that a president elect should be sworn-in for their new term on the 10 January after their election.
The spot then moves on to quote one paragraph of article 233 of the constitution which says “when a permanent absence (of the president) is produced before assuming office (i.e. before the inauguration ceremony), a new election must be held within thirty days”. The spot ends by quoting another part of article 233, which states that in such a case, the president of the National Assembly must assume the presidency while a new election is held.
Through focusing on the 10 January swearing-in date, then quoting the constitutional article on permanent presidential absences, a deliberate manipulation takes place. By introducing the idea that the current constitutional situation is one of Chavez’s “permanent absence”, the spot invites one to think that the correct legal step is for new elections to be called after 10 January. Yet Chavez’s status is not “permanent absence” and so it is actively misleading to equate that part of the constitution with the current situation, as Globovision does.
Globovision deploys the language of the president’s “permanent absence” and heavily promotes the notion of a “new election within thirty days” in a delicate political context. The opposition are arguing that the delay in Chavez’s swearing-in until after 10 January is a “violation” of the constitution and is a “coup d’état”, with sectors of the opposition declaring that they no longer recognise the legitimacy of the government. I have heard a few opposition supporters tell me that based on their (mistaken) understanding of the situation, “After 10 January, Chavez is no longer president,” and that new elections need to be called.
In such an atmosphere, there is definitely a case to be made that a media outlet repeatedly broadcasting an actively misleading set of quotes from the constitution which seem to cast the legitimacy of the government into question does indeed break several clauses within article 27 of Venezuela’s media responsibility law. The reality of the situation suggests that HRW’s stance has more to do with taking Globovision’s side in an argument with the government, rather than about a crusade for freedom of speech in Venezuela. Certainly, the opening of the administrative investigation into the spots hasn’t stopped Globovision from providing a platform for the same arguments through its numerous programs and commentators.
HRW also repeats the ridiculous claim that Globovision is the “only remaining television station with national coverage consistently critical of Chávez’s policies,” which is demonstrably false. The body also forgets to mention that the majority of both press and radio in Venezuela are privately owned, and generally critical of the government. Perhaps what HRW means is that Globovision is the only television station in Venezuela that purposefully manipulates information in a way that would not be tolerated in any Western country?
Federico Medina Ravell
The only other evidence that HRW can find to back its charges of “censorship” by the Venezuelan government is the case of tweeter Federico Medina Ravell. Medina’s house was searched on 6 January by officers of Venezuelan’s national intelligence service (Sebin) as part of “investigations into the instigation of terrorism via social networks, especially Twitter,” according to an official statement by Venezuela’s Attorney General.
Medina is assumed to be behind the Twitter name ‘Lucio Quincio C’, an account which propagates rumours about Chavez’s health and questions the legitimacy of the government. Several tweets appear to claim without basis that Chavez has already died, such as one message directed at a pro-Chavez supporter on 6 January which said, “Your owner is cold, he doesn’t have fever and is stable, he’s not moving”.
Federico Medina Ravell is described by Human Rights Watch as a “businessman”. Medina is in fact the cousin of Alberto Federico Ravell, one of the founders of Globovision, who now edits a Venezuelan news website called La Patilla. According to claims by pro-government journalist and TV host Mario Silva, Medina Ravell also counts prominent opposition political and media figures among his friends such as Henrique Capriles Radonski, Maria Corina Machado, and Antonio Ledezma.
HRW watch says that “Medina, who was not present at the time, said in an interview published online that the intelligence agents detained his wife and children for several hours and took two computers from his home”. This is true, but it doesn’t quite appear to be the heavy-handed security operation the HRW report suggests. According to Venezuelan news website Noticias24, the family had two lawyers present during the search, and neighbours were present as witnesses during questioning about Medina’s activities. Indeed, photos of Sebin officials conducting the search are available on a variety of news websites such as the one linked above.
The house search also doesn’t appear to have limited the freedom of expression of the twitter account ‘Lucio Quincio C’. For example, a 12 January tweet appeared to continue speculation of Chavez’s current state by saying “stop crying for your owner, I have offers on crowns and urns”.
Whether it was necessary for police to investigate Medina over the information propagated through the twitter account is definitely questionable. However, the action hardly amounts to the HRW charge of “limiting public discussion on issues of national importance”. Apart from brief coverage of the search itself, Venezuelan media haven’t said much on the matter. Considering that private media in Venezuela will use almost anything to criticise the government and try to find even the most flimsy basis for the cry of “restrictions on freedom of expression”, the fact that they haven’t reported much about this case suggests that even they consider it a non-starter.
Rather, it appears that HRW are grasping at straws in their attempt to create an inaccurate image of the current state of media, freedom of expression and public debate in Venezuela. Indeed, this would not be the first time that HRW has been accused of grossly misrepresenting human rights in Venezuela or committing howlers in their description of media and press freedoms in the country.
The reality inside Venezuela is that both government and opposition, and media outlets and citizens of all political stripes are freely arguing their point of view over Chavez’s health and the current constitutional situation. This includes some opposition leaders openly calling the current state of affairs a “coup” and announcing they no longer recognise the government. In such a context, a limited investigation into a media outlet enjoying a public concession which broadcasts actively misleading information about the constitution does not constitute “the limiting of public discussion” or “censorship”, as much as HRW would like to cast things otherwise.