June 21, 2001
His Excellency Hugo Chávez Frías
President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Palacio de Miraflores
VIA FACSIMILE: +58-212-806-3221
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s recent decision establishing criteria for “timely, truthful, and impartial information” and specifying how this right may be exercised.
The right to “truthful information” was included in Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution despite strong domestic and international protests. Under the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, any journalist could be prosecuted for violating this highly questionable right. CPJ is deeply concerned that Venezuelan officials will use the Supreme Court decision as a tool to suppress critical journalism.
The decision of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, dated June 12, came in response to a writ petition filed by Elías Santana, coordinator of the civic group Queremos Elegir, host of the radio program “Santana Total”, and a columnist for the Caracas-based daily El Nacional.
Your Excellency criticized both Santana and Queremos Elegir during August 27 and September 3, 2000, broadcasts of your radio program “Aló, Presidente”. Santana filed the petition to assert his right to reply on a subsequent airing of the program.
Santana’s writ of amparo (asserting violations of individual freedoms by government agencies or the judiciary) claimed that Your Excellency had deprived him of his legal right toreply to assertions made by Your Excellency. This right is guaranteed in Article 58 of Venezuela’s Constitution and in Article 14 of the American Convention on Human Rights.
The Supreme Court denied Santana’s petition, ruling that the right to reply was intended to benefit individuals who do not have access to a public forum, as opposed to media professionals and others who express themselves via the media. Santana and other prominent Venezuelans from across the political spectrum have announced that they will appeal the decision before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.
In its decision, the Supreme Court arguably exceeded the terms of the brief by issuing a binding interpretation of Articles 57 and 58 of the Constitution. Article 57 guarantees the right to free expression. Article 58 guarantees both the right to reply and the controversial right to “timely, truthful, and impartial information.”
CPJ wrote to Your Excellency on this topic in November 1999, when the National Constituent Assembly was still debating the inclusion of the right to “truthful information” in the new Constitution. In our letter, we denounced this provision as an attack on press freedom, since it gives government the power to restrict freedom of the press by deciding what does and does not constitute “truthful information.” Regrettably, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling codifies this constitutional right.
In its ruling, published in its entirety on the Web site of the Caracas-based daily El Universal, the Supreme Court asserts that the media must avoid spreading “false news or news that is manipulated with the use of half truths; disinformation that denies the opportunity to know the reality of the news; and speculation or biased information to obtain a specific goal against someone or something.” The ruling concedes that information can be deemed truthful despite containing errors, if the media outlet can demonstrate that it made a reasonable effort to verify the information prior to publication.
The ruling states that journalists may express opinions if the latter do not contain insults that are “out of context, disconnected, or unnecessary for the topic; or offensive, insidious, or degrading expressions without being connected to the topic, or unnecessary for the forming of public opinion…” The Court also states that a publication might be in violation of the truthful information clause if a majority of its columnists followed the same ideological tendency, unless the publication claimed that ideology explicitly.
The Court also rules that any information can be censored prior to publication if it violates Article 57 of the Constitution, which states: “Anonymity is not permitted, nor war propaganda, nor discriminatory messages, nor those that promote religious intolerance.”
The Supreme Court ruling clearly violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference…” The ruling also violates Article 13 of the American Convention, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought and expression.
By empowering Venezuelan courts to punish purveyors of “untruthful” information as they see fit, the Supreme Court has placed dangerous discretion in the hands of a judiciary that is not known for its independence. It is particularly troubling that this decision came one day after Your Excellency publicly threatened to expel foreigners who criticize Venezuela. According to a June 17 article in El Universal, Your Excellency affirmed these threats in a June 15 radio and television broadcast that lasted until the early hours of June 16.
Under Article 1 of the American Convention, which Venezuela has ratified, signatories are bound to respect the rights and freedoms enumerated in the convention, which include freedom of expression. CPJ urges Your Excellency to refrain from issuing threats that might discourage objective reporting on Venezuela, and to ensure that all branches of your government comply with international law regarding the practice of journalism.
Ann K. Cooper