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Human Rights Watch Urges Venezuela to Invite Freedom of Expression Rapporteur

By Pedro Pablo Peñaloza | El Universal

The Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, recommended to Venezuela's National Executive that it open up to foreign observation and demonstrate that it does not fear evaluation by international bodies.

Caracas, 25 May 2005 | The Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), José Miguel Vivanco, proposed to the Government of Venezuela that it extend a formal invitation to the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, in order that this official may assess the situation of this human right in the country.

“The Rapporteur can accomplish a very positive task that would help to end all this distrust, generate a new environment in Venezuela, and which would speak well for the Government from the political point of view, as it would make evident its will to open up to the international community and demonstrate that it has no fear under this kind of analysis,” stated the HRW spokesperson.

Vivanco considers it a “mistake” for Miraflores to have opted to assume a position of confrontation against the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which he called a professional autonomous body that fulfills a great task,” to which commission the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression reports.

He said he is aware that officials of the IACHR have attempted to travel to Venezuela in order to observe the internal reality; nevertheless, he stressed that the lack of an agreement with the Venezuelan authorities prevents that visit from materializing.

“It would be very helpful if the Rapporteur could receive a special invitation from the Government in order to visit the country, since he cannot do so if he does not have express authorization" from Miraflores, Vivanco explained.

One of a Kind

The HRW representative rejected the main argument behind which the Hugo Chávez administration has shielded itself from answering criticisms coming from abroad: National Sovereignty. “That is an anachronism, a subterfuge that many governments have used in the past to dodge their international obligations in the matter of human rights,” answered Vivanco before stressing that “I know of no other Latin American democracy where that premise currently exists.”

Nevertheless, this would not be the only thing distinguishing Caracas from its continental neighbors. The Chilean-born lawyer emphasized that the reform of the Penal Code and the promulgation of the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television “are shutting down the spaces for the exercise of freedom of expression,” and are working against the regional tendency that aims to eliminate limitations in this matter.

Vivanco, an invited speaker to a forum on human rights held at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, stated that by broadening protection for public officials by means of the “compliance laws” contemplated in the Penal Code, Venezuela is ignoring international judicial obligations and is producing “an inhibiting effect that constrains the ability of citizens to investigate possible abuses of power, including corruption.”

With respect to the so-called Gag Law, he warned that “its numerous prohibitions, which have an almost Byzantine complexity, threaten to suffocate and muzzle public debate,” while at the same time he predicted that “these new controls will work as a straightjacket on a rebellious patient, one which can be conveniently adjusted if Big Brother so decides.”

A Change of Rules

He reminded those present that on earlier occasions he had recognized that “the margins for the exercise of freedom of expression during these years under the Chávez government had been very wide;” nevertheless, he admitted that “lately the Rule of Law has suffered reversals."

Vivanco confessed that “what worries us is that there is underway the development and consolidation of a kind of double standard in Venezuela, whereby some people can count on protection, while others cannot exercise their fundamental rights,” a difference which would be aggravated owing to the constitution and the jurisprudence of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ).

“We believe that the reform in the structure of the TSJ, even before this change, has been partial to laws on compliance and is making defense more difficult, by virtue of universal and regional judicial values” as pertaining to freedom of expression, commented the spokesman from HRW.

Translation by W.K.

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