The legal framework of Venezuela’s new Constitution, approved in a December 1999 referendum, poses risks for the exercise of press freedom.
For example, Article 58 establishes that: “Everyone has the right to timely, truthful and impartial information, without censorship, in line with the principles of this Constitution, as well as the right to reply and ask for corrections when one is directly affected by inexact or offensive information.” Due to the constitutional nature of this provision, any alleged violation of this article would be compulsorily sanctioned.
The impossibility of establishing an objective standard for the constitutional requirements for news opens the way to justifying any kind of censorship. Just as it is impossible to judge a person as impartial, the same can be said of a news organization. Judging the timeliness of information can be equally arbitrary and what is truthful in actual fact can be called untruthful.
The constitutional status of the right to reply and correction raises the prospect of news reports being subjected constantly to unjustified requests for clarification, which would have to be met unconditionally under the mantle of the Constitution.
Article 57 places the burden of responsibility on a news organization for all that it expresses. While this is legally valid, elevating it to a constitutional status makes it much more dangerous. Article 60 establishes that: “The Law limits the use of computers to guarantee the honor and personal and family privacy of citizens in full exercise of their rights.” The provision presages a law to this effect. Article 61 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and its expression, except when its practice affects legal status or constitutes a crime.”
Based on these constitutional provisions, it is likely that there will be an attempt to draft a new Press Law with measures that would seriously bear on the exercise of press freedom, even to a greater extent than several articles of the existing Law of the Practice of Journalism. The Venezuelan Press Bloc had contested these provisions all the way up to the old Supreme Court, which existed until the passage of the new Constitution.
The president has repeatedly hurled threats against the media, identifying some news organizations as being enemies of his administration. He added that some news organizations were compromised with past eras marked by corruption, and said some of the news outlets had acted as fronts or covered up crimes committed against the nation.
Attacking the media on his Sunday radio program “Aló Presidente,” Chávez accused publishers and journalists of being “enemies of the revolution, manipulators and propitiators of a campaign against the government.”
While censorship of the press does not currently exist in Venezuela, there are growing fears that it could strike at any moment.
Following are events that affected press freedom:
On Nov. 28, the daily El Universal published an interview with Roberto Luckert, bishop of Coro, in which he criticized the president and his administration. The statements brought a harsh response from Chávez who assailed the bishop, the Roman Catholic Church as an institution and the newspaper.
Revista Exceso publisher Ben Ami Fihman and one of his journalists, Faitha Nahmens, are being sued for defamation and libel in a proceeding, which they maintain, does not follow due process. The plaintiff in the case is seeking a lifting of statute of limitations. If the motion is accepted by the court, this would be tantamount to raising the lawsuit to the status of crimes against humanity or war crimes, which according to Article 29 of the new Constitution, have no statute of limitations. In other words, that would mean that any thing written or broadcast could be considered as equally horrendous as the Holocaust or the recent genocide killing of thousands of people in the Balkans.
An attack damaging equipment at El Nuevo Diario newspaper, owned by journalist Rafael Poleo, prevented the newspaper from circulating for up to two days.
Since October 1999, the La Razón daily has reported being hounded and harassed by people tied to the government in response to the newspaper’s criticism of different government actions.
Interior Minister Luis Alfonso Dávila, a retired colonel, voiced his opposition to press reports that people were feeling increasingly insecure in the face of countless urban crimes. Avila said the reporting encouraged criminals and for that reason the media should minimize such coverage.
His statements drew a strong reaction from the Venezuelan Journalists’ Colegio and sectors of public opinion.
Roger Vivas, a journalist in the western state of Mérida, said “government pressures” led to the suspension of his column in the Cambio de Siglo newspaper as well as his talk show on Radio Universitaria.