The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) [official website] on Monday sent a letter to the Venezuelan government expressing their concern over the increasing threat to freedom of expression [press release] in the country. The IACHR cited three recent cases that caused them particular concern. In the first case, a journalist was sentenced to over three years in prison and fined USD $18,000 for "defamation of a public official" after he wrote a newspaper column indicating that several members the local mayor's family were working on municipal construction projects. IACHR also cited a warrant that was issued last week for the arrest of Guillermo Zuloaga, one of the owners of Globovision [media website, in Spanish], the only remaining opposition news organization in Venezuela. Zuloaga has been the frequent target of threats from public officials, and the arrest warrant was issued a week after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] criticized the judiciary and questioned why Zuloaga was still free. IACHR also expressed concern over the continuing attacks on the headquarters of the media company Cadena Capriles [media website, in Spanish]. Various media outlets belonging to Cadena Capriles, as well as individual employees, have been criticized by public officials and referred to as "media terrorists," "destabilizers" and "coup conspirators." In addition to the verbal threats, physical violence against the media outlets has been increasing. IACHR cited inadequate separation between the judicial and executive branches as the primary cause for the decreasing freedom of expression, stating:
[S]paces for public debate on Venezuelan government authorities are constantly becoming smaller, given the use of instruments like the criminal law to silence critical expression and dissent. In this sense, it is extremely worrying that a journalist would be convicted for the crime of "disrespecting a public official" for publishing an article denouncing a possible act of corruption; or that the criminal law can be used as an indirect method of censoring the owner of one of the only media outlets in Venezuelan that is independent of the government. These facts are another demonstration of the consensus between executive branch and judicial branch authorities on the idea that it is legitimate to silence critics of the government using the criminal lawIACHR is urging the Venezuelan government to guarantee all citizens the right to freedom of expression, including the right to speak against the government. They also called on the country to take the steps necessary to ensure an independent judiciary that is "committed to applying the provisions of the Venezuelan Constitution and international treaties to which Venezuela is party."
Venezuela has long been criticized for rights abuses, allegations that the Chavez government has repeatedly denied. In February, IACHR released a report [text; JURIST report] providing a detailed analysis on the state of human rights in Venezuela, which ultimately concluded that not all citizens are ensured full enjoyment of their basic human rights. The top Venezuelan human rights official criticized the report [JURIST report] and said that the report makes unfair characterizations and undermines Venezuelan democracy. Last year, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) added Venezuela to its "watch list" [JURIST report] of countries that limit religious freedom. Also last year, the US State Department criticized Venezuela for press restrictions [JURIST report] in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In 2008, Venezuelan officials ordered two senior Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] staff to leave the country [JURIST report] after the group released a report concluding that democracy and human rights have suffered during the Chavez administration.