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Venezuela8 November 2007

Concern about safety of journalists amid violent demonstrations over constitutional reform

Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern today about the safety of Venezuela’s journalists amid mounting clashes between supporters and opponents of a constitutional reform that was recently adopted by the national assembly. The demonstrations have stepped up since the National Electoral Council formally convened a referendum on the reform for 2 December.

According to Agence France-Presse, four students sustained gunshot wounds when gunmen fired on a demonstration by constitutional reform opponents yesterday on the Central University of Venezuela campus in Caracas.

“Whether working for pro-government or opposition media, journalists already became the target of the rage of demonstrators on both sides during the December 2006 presidential election,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This situation is being repeated now on an even more serious scale. We call on political parties and organisations taking part in the demonstrations to calm their activists and ensure respect for press freedom. Everyone has a duty to see that the referendum debate is a peaceful one.”

On 25 October, just before parliament approved the proposed reform, Paulina Moreno of TV Ávila (a public television station owned by the pro-government Caracas city hall) was injured by a home-made explosive device while covering a forum at the Caracas Institute of Teaching, while a TV Ávila cameraman was beaten and sprayed with insecticide by opponents of the reform.

Under the proposed amendments to the 1999 constitution, the president will empowered to declare a state of emergency of unlimited duration (article 338) that could include the suspension of certain basic rights and freedoms, including press freedom (article 337).


26.10 - National assembly approves constitutional reform restricting access to in formation under state of emergency

In an almost unanimous vote (160 in favour and seven abstentions), Venezuela’s national assembly yesterday approved a constitutional reform increasing the president’s powers and enabling him to decree an unlimited state of emergency without needing the supreme court’s approval (article 338).

The right to a fair trial and access to information would henceforth be among the constitutional guarantees that can be suspended under a state of emergency (article 337). The amendments are to be put to a referendum on 2 December.

“As modified, article 337 is in its own right a setback for basic freedoms in general and press freedom in particular,” Reporters Without Borders said. “There is reason for even more concern about the use of this article in combination with the following one, empowering the president, on his sole authority, to proclaim an unlimited state of emergency.”

The press freedom organisation added: “According to the 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, a state of emergency must not be indefinite. Furthermore, it must not be used as a convenient way of reducing press freedom in a country in which the media are already very polarised.”


17.10.07 - National Assembly urged to rethink proposed constitutional charges that violate press freedom

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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