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RSF concerned that proposed constitutional amendments will violate press freedom

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an RSF letter to the vice-president of the National Assembly of Venezuela:

Madam Deputy Desiré Santos Amaral
First Vice-President of the National Assembly
Caracas

Dear Madam Deputy,

Reporters Without Borders would like to share with you its concern about the reform of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, which is being debated by the National Assembly and which is to be put to a referendum next December. We fear that the proposed changes to articles 337 and 338 of the constitution, if approved in their current form, are liable to violate press freedom.

In its original form, article 337 allows certain constitutional guarantees to be suspended in a state of emergency decreed by the government, but specifies that inviolable rights such as the right to life, protection of physical integrity and the exclusion of any use of torture, the right to communicate, the right to a fair trial and access to information cannot be suspended. The new version of article 337 excludes the last two from the range of rights considered inviolable, even in a state of emergency.

The fact that the right to a fair trial is no longer guaranteed in such circumstances is already a source of concern for the rule of law. But a state of emergency does not affect the public's right to be informed and the media's right to inform them. The amendment to article 337 violates press freedom. As a professional journalist, how could you accept this kind of restriction?

The amendment to article 338 compounds the danger of abuses already mentioned. The original wording says "the state of emergency can last 30 days, and can be renewed for the same period, or in cases of internal or external conflict, it can last as long as 90 days, and can be renewed for the same period." The amended form drops any mention of a deadline for renewal and allows the president to proceed without referring to the Supreme Court.

As you know, these provisions violate judicial precedents set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to which Venezuela is bound as a member of the Organisation of American States. The court has ruled several times that a state of emergency cannot last indefinitely, especially as regards the compromising of basic freedoms.

As you also know, public opinion is deeply divided on these two aspects of the proposed constitutional reform and the divisions extend to the parties in the ruling coalition. The Communist Party of Venezuela, Patria para Todos (Homeland for All) and Podemos (We Can) had expressed their disapproval and have called for the referendum to be postponed so that the Venezuelan people can learn more about the proposed amendments.

Students who came to demonstrate outside parliament against the amendment of article 337 on 15 October were dispersed by the police. Two journalists, Francia Sánchez of RCTV Internacional and Diana Carolina Ruiz of Globovisión, were physically attacked as the police looked on without intervening.

It is vital, under these circumstances, that the National Assembly should take the time to have a proper debate and act with care. We hope you will help this come about.

We trust you will give this matter your careful consideration.

Sincerely,

Robert Ménard
Secretary-General

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