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New censorship office created by Chavez threatens government critics, free flow of information

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Washington, DC, July 21, 2010 - Venezuela should close a recently created office that grants the Chávez administration broad powers to limit public debate, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also stop seeking to discredit human rights defenders and prosecuting critics.

On June 1, 2010, President Hugo Chávez issued a presidential decree creating the Center for Situational Studies of the Nation (Centro de Estudio Situacional de la Nación, CESNA), which has broad powers to limit public dissemination of "information, facts or circumstance[s]" that it decides should be confidential.

In addition, Chávez has called for criminal investigations of human rights organizations that are alleged to receive funding from the United States. The government has also failed to provide protection for human rights defenders who have received threats and has prosecuted critics of government actions or policies.

"Chávez has created a new tool for controlling public debate in Venezuela," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "The new decree would allow the president to block the discussion of topics that are inconvenient for his government, blatantly violating the rights of expression and to information, which are at the heart of a democratic society."

A New Tool for Censorship

The June 1 decree that establishes CESNA within the Ministry of the Interior and Justice states that the center will "compile, process and analyze" information from government offices and civil society "regarding any aspect of national interest." The center's president, appointed by Chavez and the ministry, has the power to declare that "any information, fact, or circumstance" is "reserved, classified, or of limited release."
The subsequent release by government officials of information that could "compromise the security and defense of the Nation" is subject to criminal penalties, under the Venezuelan National Security Law. The decree includes a clause providing that "laws, rules of procedure, or other norms" may grant the center new powers.

The decree's language is so broad that it could allow the government to block dissemination of information, not only by state entities, but also by non-state actors, including civil society groups and the media. The American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) explicitly prohibits such censorship, and such arbitrary restrictions on the right to receive and impart information are incompatible with Venezuela's obligations, as a party to the ACHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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A recent report by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights documented that there "continues to be a climate of hostility and threats against the life and physical integrity of human rights defenders in Venezuela."

President Chávez and his allies in the National Assembly are seeking to push through legislation that would, if enacted, allow arbitrary government interference in the operations of human rights organizations, including fund-raising. A bill aimed at creating closer government scrutiny and control of nongovernmental organizations is pending. In addition, on July 14, Chávez stated that prosecutors should "thoroughly investigate" the "millions and millions of dollars" that the US State Department gives to Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations. His statements were made a day after a pro-Chávez organization presented a formal complaint before prosecutors, seeking an investigation into funding received by Espacio Público and the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad, two leading groups in Venezuela that monitor human rights and freedom of expression.

"The Chávez administration should stop seeking to discredit human rights defenders, and instead should take steps to ensure that they are able to question government policies without reprisals," Vivanco said. "And there is no excuse for delay in providing effective protection to people who have received threats."

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