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Venezuela: Health minister criticizes media coverage of HIV/AIDS and Chikungunya virus

On 1 July 2014, Francisco Armada, the Poder Popular (MPPS) minister of health, accused several private media outlets of leading a national destabilization campaign through their coverage of the Chikungunya virus and the supply of anti-retroviral drugs for persons living with HIV/AIDS.

Armada stated that there is a media war consisting of divulging fake information on advances by the Poder Popular ministry of health regarding the lack of supplies of anti-retroviral drugs for persons living with HIV in the country. The minister made this statement on his radio program “Salud es Vivir Bien”, aired on Radio Nacional de Venezuela, Tuesdays at nine a.m.

The MPPS' general director of epidemiology, Edgar Rivera, had been invited to the radio program and stated that the 17 confirmed cases of Chikungunya nationwide were mostly persons who contracted the virus abroad, specifically in the Dominican Republic. He also underscored that there are no vaccines for the virus, so the efforts are focused on the prevention and elimination of mosquito breeding grounds.

It is important to note that the Chikungunya virus is a viral disease transmitted by mosquito bites, from mosquitos infected with the virus. Detected for the first time during a viral outbreak in southern Tanzania in 1952, Chikungunya has been detected in almost 40 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and America. Common symptoms include fever, strong pains, nausea and skin rashes.

Minister Armada's comments came in response to a series of articles published in newspapers that circulate nationwide. The articles described alleged flaws in the public health system, which could evidence deficiencies in tackling the Chikungunya virus and the supply of anti-retroviral drugs in Venezuela.

Article 57 of the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (CRBV) establishes that public officials are empowered and bound to divulge information on topics of their competency. Despite this guarantee, official information restrictions exist when it comes to public health statistics. These restrictions not only affect the work of journalists, but also generate a climate of uncertainty and mistrust in the population, since the absence of hard data is usually substituted by unfounded and inexact rumours.

Statements made against media outlets run counter to international freedom of expression standards and the right to information as consecrated in Article 13 of the OAS' American Human Rights Convention (AHRC) and Article 19 of the UN's International Civil and Political Rights Pact.

In addition, official agreements to not inform people about the true dimension of viral diseases in Venezuela breach the tenets of the World Health Organization (WHO).

General remark N° 14 of 2000 of the UN's Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights set forth that the right to health not only encompasses timely medical care but also basic determining conditions to guarantee this. Among the indispensable aspects thereof is the principle of access to healthcare, which is made up of four aspects: non- discrimination, physical accessibility, economic accessibility and access to information.

This guarantee corresponds to the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, articles 51 and 143, which set forth that the right to access public information and the responsibility of state officials and institutions to timely disseminate information of collective interest.

The Precedents

In 2013, eleven health reporters affiliated with various private media outlets from 10 Venezuelan states informed the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela (IPYS Venezuela) that the majority of regional health authorities had not informed, in a timely and pertinent manner, the number of deceased persons due to the Type A influenza virus in June.

Journalists consulted by IPYS Venezuela said that although state authorities evidenced their willingness to inform on the status of the epidemic during this period, they did not deliver statistical information to corroborate their declarations on the number of death, sometimes alleging that it was due to orders from above. Therefore, there are restrictions for citizens to access pertinent, appropriate and timely information on the dimensions of this influenza virus.

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