Media outlets taken off the air and freedom of expression threatened in Venezuela
On 15th February 2017, CNN en Español was removed from the air. As reported by the media outlet, the Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), the Venezuelan government agency regulating media, ordered cable providers to pull CNN en Español's signal from the airwaves after CNN aired an investigation into the case of fraudulent disbursement of Venezuelan passports and visas. CONATEL claimed it was a preventative measure and no further information was provided as to when it would be allowed to broadcast again. CONATEL Director, Andrés Eloy Méndez, however, assured the public that CNN had not been nor would ever be censored in Venezuela, despite the fact that, according to Méndez, it consistently instigates "religious, racial and political hatred".
On 16th February 2017, the Mexican media outlet TV Azteca was also removed from the air. In this case, however, it was not clear whether this happened per CONATEL's orders. As stated by the president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Subscription Television, TV Azteca was pulled as a result of unsuccessful negotiations between TV Azteca and cable companies.
As reported on 7th March 2017 by the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa (National Union of Press Workers - SNTP), seven local radios were also removed from the air on CONATEL's orders. The Union also informed the public that in February 2017, 24 attacks against freedom of expression were documented involving 33 journalists. Cases of cyber attacks against independent media, including the newspaper Correo del Caroní and the digital news website El Pitazo, were also reported in March 2017.
Venezuelan civil society denounced a negative campaign against 45 domestic civil society organisations. The 45 CSOs addressed a joint letter to the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), requesting the OAS to apply its Democratic Charter in the case of Venezuela. After sending the letter, the CSOs were attacked by the media and government authorities.
In response to the letter in early March 2017, the Venezuelan Ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, issued a statement, saying:
"Every time there is talk about [the Democratic Charter] there is a disruption in the climate of dialogue, of conversation that the country rather needs. [Requesting the application of the Democratic Charter] sounds like a provocation, a disturbance of what the Vatican has advanced, and of what facilitators have advanced... given that it is a radical extremist position compared to the proposition of dialogue".
Con el Mazo Dando, a TV program hosted by a high-level government official, Diosdado Cabello, is another tool that the government has recently used to name and shame civil society and activists, including the 45 NGOs, that allegedly "conspire against Venezuela along with [OAS Secretary General] Almagro and the United States".
When members of the Venezuelan National Assembly also requested the application of the OAS Democratic Charter, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice decided to strip them off their parliamentary immunity, claiming that their request constituted a threat to the stability of the country. The Supreme Court also gave President Nicolás Maduro additional exceptional powers to try assembly members in a court of law.
As reported by Foro Penal Venezolano (FPV), a domestic civil society organisation, in the first trimester of 2017 there were 15 political arrests, a steep increase compared to the three arrests documented for the same period in 2016. The release of political prisoners also slightly increased in the first trimester of 2017, with four releases compared to three in 2016. Nevertheless, more political prisoners should have been freed in early 2017, given that various judges have thus far issued release orders for 21. The National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) has not yet complied with most of those orders, a serious issue that FPV has repeatedly raised. According to civil society sources, the number of prisoners with release orders has continued to rise.
Additionally, the National Electoral Council (CNE) has ordered a membership update process for all political parties to exclude those with less than one percent of the vote in at least two states in the last elections. Even though some opposition political parties have already followed the procedure to obtain the required validation, several opposition leaders have expressed concern that the process aims to reduce the number of political parties by imposing unwarranted burdens on party supporters who wish to re-register. According to opposition sources, this would be severely detrimental to democracy in Venezuela. Regardless of these concerns, the CNE plans to continue the process of updating membership for political parties through May.
Although no major organised demonstrations have taken place over the past few months, civil society has documented an increase in the number of spontaneous protests erupting in various places, usually motivated by long lines for food or petrol.
Amnesty International's 2016 report on Venezuela highlighted the excessive police force used against demonstrators concerned about food scarcity. In addition, 60 percent of Venezuelan judges are in temporary positions and are therefore vulnerable to political pressure. This has also been cited as a possible threat to due process guarantees for citizens arrested during protests.
Two relatively minor protests by students of the Universidad Católica del Táchira and workers of the Universidad Central de Venezuela were repressed by police on 13th February and 23rd March 2017, respectively.