Undaunted by severe state suppression of peaceful assembly, Venezuelans protest

At the time of writing, Venezuela remains on the CIVICUS Monitor's Watch List of countries where there is an immediate and developing threat to civic space.

Peaceful Assembly 

Protests in Venezuela have continued for over two months now as the economic and political crisis worsens. Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social (Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict) recorded at least 1,791 protests taking place across the country from the beginning of April to end of May 2017.

The government continues to respond to the protests with repression and excessive force. However, according to local human rights organisation PROVEA, the level of repression has increased over the past weeks. PROVEA has noted that Venezuelan security forces are using more repressive tactics to disperse and prevent protests as well as intimidate protesters. Now they do not just disrupt demonstrations, they prevent them from happening by arresting protesters gathering at various meeting points.

Over the past two months more than 60 Venezuelans have been killed in protests, according to a local organisation - Espacio Publico. Also, more than 1,000 have been injured and over 2,000 arrested during protests. Arrested individuals have faced ill treatment and torture while in detention, including beatings and cigarette burns, while others were force-fed pasta topped with grass and excrement. Furthermore, according to the local organisation Foro Penal, tear-gas canisters have been thrown into prison cells and women in prisons have been the subjected to sexual harassment.

The international community continues to condemn the Venezuelan government’s suppression of protest actions. The Inter-American Commission on Human rights has issued more than five statements since the protests started, calling on the government to exercise greater restraint and “not… use military-style operations, such as Plan Zamora, to control social protests, and to refrain from using armed civilians to control demonstrations”.

The European Union also expressed concern over the violence and use of force during the demonstrations and emphasised that “the fundamental rights of the Venezuelan people, including the right to demonstrate peacefully, must be respected”. 

And the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke at the opening of the 35th session of the Human Rights Council, where he urged “the [Venezuelan] government to accept [his] request for a work mission in the field”.

Association

On 8th May 2017, unidentified individuals broke into the house of human right defenders, Yonaide Sanchez and Nelson Freitez. This time none of their belongings were taken, but the break ins had already occurred twice before in November 2016 and April 2017, during which time their work material was stolen.

A few days later, on 10th May 2017, Ehisler Vasquez, activist and founder of the human rights organisation FUNPAZ, reported that police officers raided his home in the city of Barquisimeto without any justification or search warrant. Amnesty International issued an urgent action, calling on the government to clarify the reason for the search and to remind the authorities of their duty to protect human rights defenders.

Those are not the only cases of intimidation against human rights defenders. On 11th May 2017, activist Rigoberto Lobo Puentes was outside a court monitoring a protest when agents from the Criminal, Penal and Scientific Investigation Body approached him, pointed a gun and told him to stop using his phone and taking pictures and videos of the protest. On 18th May, police fired rubber bullets at Puentes while he attempted to monitor another protest. 

Expression

Security forces continue to attack journalists and confiscate their equipment, thus preventing them from reporting on the protests. For example, on 31st May 2017, reporter Francisco Bruzco reported being beaten by military personnel and his camera was stolen.

Espacio Publico documented 25 violations of freedom of expression during the first five days of June. Furthermore, at least 20 media workers have been injured by tear gas canisters during protests. And since March 2017, Alianza para la Libertad de Prensa has counted more than 160 acts of aggression against journalists and media workers.

The government continues to censor and restrict the already limited flow of information in the country. In May 2017, the state telecommunications commission closed seven radio station in the state of Barinas.  

In addition, the Official Extraordinary Gazette N° 6,298, published on 13th May 2017, extended the executive decree on a State of Economic Emergency in 2016. Under the new extension, internet surveillance and content filtering are authorised. This is especially worrisome as authorities have already blocked four news sites in the first quarter of 2017, and currently at least 41 sites are being blocked in some way by Venezuela's internet providers.

United Nations and Inter American Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteurs have condemned the censorship and restrictions on information from traditional media in Venezuela, affirming that:

"Even under a state of emergency, the regulation as well as limitation or restrictions on web-sites and television signals transmitted over the internet are disproportionate and incompatible with international standards".