2014 was the “worst year” for freedom of expression in Venezuela, says Espacio Público

With a total of 579 violations and 350 cases, 2014 was the “worst year” on record in terms “guarantees to the human right to freedom of expression” in Venezuela, according to non-governmental organization Espacio Público. The number of violations and cases, they said, are the highest they have been in the past 20 years.​

The study, ‘The general state of freedom of speech and information in Venezuela (Jan. - Dec. 2014)’ was released by Espacio Público on January 20. It demonstrates that during this period there was a 59 percent increase in reported cases, with a total of 474 victims. The number of violations on free speech alone represented a 102 percent increase from 2013.

Venezuela had a year characterized by social conflict and student demonstrations that demanded solutions to problems like violence, insecurity, and impunity. According to the study, the state's security forces oppressed social movements, which is why freedom of expression violations were not only experienced by journalists and media workers, but also by people who participated in and documented them, such as human rights activists, NGO members, and civilians.

February, as a result, marked the beginning of protests and presented a significant number of violations, with 86 reported cases. Censorship was the most common type of violation reported, with 145 cases. Aggression was the second-most common, with 93.

The study highlighted one of the incidents that received the highest amount of attention and disapproval from the international community: the shutdown of Colombian news channel NTN24 just as it was covering the Feb. 12 protests. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signaled that moving the channel off air was a state decision. NTN24 did not return to national cable until the end of the year.

However, the study also indicated that the changing ownership of major newspapers, such as Últimas Noticias and El Universal, served to spur censorship and auto-censorship cases. According to the study, there were various patterns within these publications, such as the reduction of space available for denouncements made by sources, the invisibility of political leaders, and changes made to headlines and the articles themselves.

It was in this context that the head of the investigative unit under Cadena Capriles, Tamoa Calzadilla, resigned from his position after an article for the paper Últimas Noticias was censored. The firing of certain columnists from El Universal was also announced at this time, following a change in ownership.

Complaints of censorship came from the Internet and social media, too. In February, the social media website Twitter was supposedly blocked by the National Autonomous Telephone Company of Venezuela (Cantv), an entity that provides more than 90 precent of internet lines in the country.

As far as the attacks and threats against journalists and photo journalists went, the report indicated that the majority came while covering public protests. These acts of aggression included beatings, pellet shots, tear gas attacks, detainments, the confiscation of cameras and cellphones, the destruction of audiovisual and photographic material, and intimidation.

Without a doubt, the death of José Alejandro Márquez, a citizen that was documenting the protests on February 19, generated the most public outrage. According to sources, employees working for the National Bolivarian Guard (GNB) beat the citizen in order to get their cellphone, which contained documentation of the protests. As a result of the beating, Márquez was taken to the hospital, where he died days after being declared brain dead.

The report by Espacio Público ended with a series of recommendations for the state, emphasizing that the context, which is polarized and hostile for practice of journalistic work, is maintained due to “the state's abandonment of the guarantee to practice journalism and the protection of the human right to freedom of expression,” which goes hand in hand with the disqualifying and stigmatizing discourse on the part of public employees.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.