July 17, 2000
His Excellency Hugo Chávez Frías
President of the Republic of Venezuela
VIA FAX: +582-806-7044 / 3101
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to express its concern over the criminal defamation charges being brought against the weekly La Razón for reporting on alleged irregularities in bidding on government contracts and at state auctions. We strongly object to the weekly's being prohibited from publishing information related to this case. We view this harassment through legal channels as a violation of international law. We urge Your Excellency to use the power of your office to see to it that La Razón's right to inform the public is respected.
This criminal defamation suit against La Razón was filed in October 1999 by Venezuelan businessman Tobías Carrero under Article 444 of Venezuela's criminal code. Under Venezuelan law, judges have the authority to impose criminal penalties, including jail sentences, in criminal defamation lawsuits brought by private individuals.
Carrero claims that the honor and reputation of his insurance company, Multinacional de Seguros, were damaged by columns published in September 1999 by La Razón, which alleged that Carrero benefited from favoritism exhibited in the awarding of government contracts and the auctioning of state property. Carrero was a prominent supporter of Your Excellency's campaign for president.
Because he did not attend a series of court hearings related to the suit, La Razón's editor, Pablo López Ulacio, was placed under house arrest on July 8. In a telephone interview from his home, López said he boycotted the hearings to protest the criminal defamation charges being brought against La Razón.
On June 30, presiding judge, David Pérez rejected Carrero's lawyer Mayra Vernet's petition to close down La Razón. Judge Pérez instead issued an order prohibiting the newspaper from publishing information related to the suit. On July 10, a court inspector called on Judge Pérez to recuse himself from the case, citing his "evident partiality." Two days later, Judge Pérez complied, and the case was transferred to a new judge, Graudy Villegas.
Judge Villegas revoked the house arrest order against López on July 13, but the court order barring La Razón from publishing information relating to the lawsuit remains in effect. López's lawyers are seeking a review of the case by Judge Villegas, and a new court hearing has been set for August 4.
In publishing the series alleging questionable dealings on the part of your government, La Razón was fulfilling its duty to inform the public. CPJ believes that the role played by the press in a democratic society is an essential one and that no journalist should face criminal prosecution for what he or she writes. Civil litigation should provide adequate redress for any individual who feels he or she has been defamed in the press.
This principle was affirmed by a group of international defenders of press freedom when they met in November, under the auspices of the organization Article 19. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Abid Hussain; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Representative on Freedom of the Media, Freimut Duve; and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States, Santiago A. Canton declared that: "In many countries laws are in place, such as criminal defamation laws, which unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression. We urge States to review these laws with a view to bringing them into line with their international obligations."
Venezuela's international obligations include the American Convention on Human Rights, under which Article 13 guarantees freedom of thought and expression. Article 13 also states that the work of journalists should not be subject to prior censorship. Clearly, barring La Razón from reporting on matters related to the criminal defamation suit filed by Carrero is an act of prior censorship and a violation of Article 13.
We urge Your Excellency to use the power of your office to ensure that Venezuela's laws comply with the obligations your country incurred when it ratified the American Convention. We furthermore call on you to ensure that Venezuelan officials respect the freedom of expression guaranteed in Article 13. This will allow Venezuelan journalists to make their contribution to society without fear of being subjected to censorship or prosecuted for their work.
Ann K. Cooper