Public Order, Violence against Speakers / Impunity
Perozo and others v. Venezuela
Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of
Closed Expands Expression
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Several people linked to the television channel Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) suffered a series of acts of harassment, persecution and physical and verbal attacks between 2001 and 2005 for exercising their freedom of expression. Additionally, several Venezuelan government officials made intimidating statements about these people and the television station’s journalistic activities. The Inter-American Court heard the case and determined that the totality of these acts constituted ways of obstructing, interfering and intimidating the exercise of the professional activities of RCTV journalists. It also noted that, due to the context in which the senior officials’ statements were issued, the individuals connected RCTV were put in more vulnerable circumstances and, further, the lack of diligence in the investigations constituted a breach of the State’s obligation to prevent and investigate the facts.
It should be noted that this decision is very similar to Perozo et al. v. Venezuela.
Between 2001 and 2005 Venezuela was going through a period of “very high political and social polarization and conflict” marked by violence against journalists and the media. In this context, senior government officials issued statements about the media in general, and the owners and managers of the TV channel Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) in particular. These statements were broadcast on television and disseminated in several public appearances during that time period. The owners and managers were identified as “fascists”, “enemies of the revolution”, “an enemy of the people of Venezuela” and as participants in the 2002 coup. Additionally, RCTV was characterized “as one of four private media outlets [the officials referred to as] ‘the four horsemen of the Apocalypse’; and the media outlet was also accused of ‘conspiring against the revolution’, of ‘fascist and coup-plotting perversion’ and as responding to a ‘terrorist plan.’”[para.127]. Similarly, during public appearances, the officials spoke about the content of the information transmitted by RCTV, particularly, the outlet’s alleged lack of truthfulness, arguing it “promotes violence” and “lack of respect and honor towards the President of the Republic”. In that regard, officials permanently referred to the possibility of canceling the TV channel’s concession to operate [para. 127].
Against this backdrop, violent demonstrations were held outside RCTV’s headquarters and, on one occasion, unidentified people “tried to force security doors that grant access to the station by setting fire to a company truck, they fired shots against the building and they wrote insults on the walls”[para. 130]. This prevented the TV station’s employees from carrying out their work. Several RCTV journalists were physically assaulted and insulted by unspecified individuals on different occasions while trying to cover public demonstrations. Also, on several occasions journalists were prevented from covering official events, and other times their vehicles were damaged.
As a result, the professional and personal lives of RCTV journalists’ were affected due to the fear they felt when performing their duties. Specifically, they said they had to wear gas masks and bulletproof vests for covering news in the street, and in certain areas and events [para. 272].
In view of the lack of protection suffered by RCTV journalists and workers, in January 2002 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered precautionary measures in their favor. Additionally, since November 2002, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court HR) ordered Venezuela to adopt provisional protective measures for individuals connected to RCTV.
In total, 30 of these events were denounced before the Public Ministry. In some cases, the Public Ministry opened investigations ex officio (on its own initiative). However, most of the investigations were affected by “unjustified procedural inactivity” and some lacked the necessary inquiries to verify “the existence of the facts” [para. 331].
The Inter-American Court heard the case and ruled the totality of acts constituted ways of obstructing, interfering and repressing the exercise of the professional activities of RCTV journalists. It also noted that, due to the context in which the senior officials’ statements were issued, they increased the vulnerability of the people connected to RCTV and the lack of diligence in the investigations, constituted a breach of the State’s obligation to prevent and investigate the facts.
The Court had to decide two legal issues. First, whether in a context of high social polarization and conflict, the statements and physical aggressions carried out by high public officials and private citizens in Venezuela against the journalists and managers of a TV station violated their rights to personal integrity and freedom of expression under the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR).
Second, whether in a context of high social polarization and conflict, the State’s general obligation to guarantee rights imposes a duty to conduct an effective investigation of the aggressions and statements made by high public officials and private citizens against the journalists and managers of a TV station “as a way of guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression and to personal integrity, and thus avoid [these acts] continue to occur” [para. 282].
The Court recalled that freedom of expression involves both individuals’ right to express their own thoughts as well as the right to seek, receive and impart all kinds of information and ideas. It reiterated that freedom of expression is essential for the consolidation of democratic societies. It further noted it is necessary to not only protect and guarantee the dissemination of “information or ideas that are received favorably or that are considered as inoffensive or indifferent, but also in what refers to those that result unpleasant for the State or any sector of the population. These are the demands of pluralism, which imply tolerance and a spirit of openness, without which there cannot be a democratic society. Any condition, restriction, or punishment in this subject must be proportionate to the legal purpose sought. Without an effective guarantee for freedom of expression, the democratic system is weakened and pluralism and tolerance suffer losses; the mechanisms of citizen control and complaints may become ineffective and, in short, a fertile ground for them to enroot authoritarian systems is created” [para. 105].
The Court also emphasized that States have the obligation to minimize restrictions to freedom of expression and to try to balance the diverse political voices and views that participate in the public debate. The Court indicated that to effectively exercise the right to freedom of expression it is necessary to have “conditions and social practices that favor it.” [para. 107]. In this sense, it argued the right to freedom of expression may be subject to illegitimate restrictions by “regulatory or administrative acts of the State or due to conditions de facto that place those who exercise it or try to exercise in a direct or indirect situation of risk or greater vulnerability due to acts or omissions of State agents or individuals. Within the framework of its obligations to guarantee the rights acknowledged in the Convention, the State must abstain from acting in such a way that favors, promotes, fosters, or deepens that vulnerability and it must adopt, when appropriate, the measures necessary and reasonable to prevent or protect the rights of whoever is in that situation, as well as investigate facts that affect them.” [para. 107]. Furthermore, the Court reiterated that this general obligation to guarantee human rights implies the State must “organize the entire governmental apparatus, all the structures through which it exercises public power, in a way such that makes them capable of legally guaranteeing the free and full exercise of human rights” [para. 137].
Thus, in light of this consideration, the Court referred to the potential impact of public officials’ statements and their duties when exercising their freedom of expression. For the Court, officials must satisfy four general duties: 1) refer to matters of public interest; 2) “verify in a reasonable, but not necessarily exhaustive, manner, the facts on which they base their opinions”; 3) “take into consideration that as public officials they have a position of guarantor of the fundamental rights of people and, therefore, their statements cannot ignore those rights”; 4) ensure their statements do not constitute “forms of direct or indirect interference or harmful pressure on the rights of those who seek to contribute with public deliberation through the expression and diffusion of their thoughts”. [para. 139]. This last duty must be especially observed in “situations of greater social conflict, alterations of public order or social or political polarization, precisely because of the set of risks they may imply for certain people or groups at a given time.” [para. 139].
In addition, the Court considered a public official’s statement can increase the risk that would normally affect a journalist, because sometimes public speech “may cause [or] suggest actions, or be interpreted by public officials or sectors of the society as instructions, instigations, or any form of authorization or support for the commission of acts that may put at risk or violate the life, personal safety, or other rights of people who exercise journalistic tasks or whoever exercises that freedom of expression.” [para. 143].
The Court recalled that States can be held internationally liable for acts committed by third parties. This can occur regarding the acts or omissions of public officials who are in a position to guarantee human rights. For the Court, “[t]he erga omnes nature of the conventional obligations to guarantee does not imply an unlimited responsibility of the States with regard to any act of individuals. The specific circumstances of the case and the concretion of those obligations to guarantee must be analyzed, considering the predictability of a real and immediate risk.” [para. 110]
Moreover, the Court noted the general obligation to guarantee human rights under the Convention may be fulfilled in more than one way, “based on the specific right the State must guarantee and the specific needs of protection” [para. 282]. In this regard, it said that investigating violations of substantive human rights can be a means to “shelter, protect, or guarantee that right” [para. 283].
The Court stated that the duty to investigate has its origins both in international and domestic law. Thus, States should establish, pursuant to their internal regulations, the procedures for people to denounce or exercise the pertinent legal actions to protect their rights and, when applicable, participate in the proceeding and the investigation. According to the Court, “to prove that a specific resource, such as a criminal investigation, is adequate it will be necessary to verify that it is suitable to protect the juridical situation that has been allegedly violated.” [para. 284]
Regarding freedom of expression, the Court stated, “the appropriateness of criminal proceedings as the adequate and effective resource to guarantee freedom of expression] will depend on the act of omission that violated said right. If the freedom of expression of a person has been affected by an act that has also violated other rights, such as personal freedom, personal integrity, or life, the criminal investigation may be an adequate resource to protect that situation. Under other circumstances, it is possible that criminal proceedings are not the necessary means to guarantee the due protection of the freedom of expression. The use of criminal proceedings “shall correspond to the need to protect fundamental juridical rights from situations that imply grave damages to those rights, and it must be proportional to the magnitude of the damage caused.’” [para. 285]
With respect to the case under review, the Court argued the statements made by senior government officials had an official nature because “the mentioned public officials made use, in exercise of their investiture, of the means provided to them by the State to issue their statements and speeches” [par. 138]. In this sense, it indicated “in the contexts in which the facts of the present case occurred […],and upon observing the perception State authorities and certain sectors of society have expressed they have of that communication firm, it is possible to consider that those pronouncements of high public officials created, or at least contributed to emphasize or exacerbate, situations of hostility, intolerance, or animosity by sectors of the population towards the people linked to that communication firm. The content of some speeches, due to the high investiture of the person who offers them and their reiteration, implies an omission of the State authorities to their duty to prevent the facts, since it could have been interpreted by individuals and groups of individuals in such a way that they resulted in acts of violence against the alleged victims, as well as hindrances to their journalistic task.” [para. 148]. However, the Court found it had not been proven these statements were “State policy” [para. 138].
Additionally, the Court found the acts against RCTV journalists transpired when they were trying to exercise their professional activities. The Court stated that the assaults, intimidation and threats against the journalists, and the violent attacks against RCTV’s headquarters, had an “intimidating or frightening effect […] on the people that were present and were employed at that time by said communication firm.” [para. 333]
Finally, the Court indicated that most of the investigations were characterized by procedural inactivity and lack of diligence. Accordingly, the Court stated, “totality of the investigations did not constitute an effective means to guarantee the rights of the alleged victims to personal integrity and to seek, receive, and impart information” [para. 331].
In conclusion, the Corte considered “the totality of the proven facts were forms of obstruction, hindrance, and intimidation to the exercise of the journalistic tasks of the alleged victims, expressed through attacks or situations that put their personal integrity at risk, which in the context of the mentioned pronouncements made by high public officials and of the omission of state authorities in their duty to offer due diligence in the investigations, constituted failures to comply with the State’s obligations to prevent and investigate the facts” [para. 334]. For this reason, it held the State of Venezuela responsible for violating articles 1.1, 5.1 y 13.1 of the American Convention.
Despite this finding, the Court did not have sufficient evidence to prove Venezuela’s responsibility with respect to the other alleged facts. However, it reiterated its jurisprudence on indirect restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision, which is very similar to Perozo et al. v. Venezuela, established clear obligations for State authorities that exercise their freedom of expression. The Court considered officials should: 1) reasonably verify the facts that give rise to their opinions; 2) avoid statements that ignore or violate human rights; 3) avoid statements that interfere directly or indirectly or exert harmful pressure on the rights of others. These obligations should be heightened under high social conflict circumstances, with the purpose of avoiding an elevation of people’s risk levels.
Additionally, the Court asserted the State must organize all its governmental structure to juridically guarantee human rights are exercised freely and fully.
Finally, the Court reiterated the standard according to which investigations of substantive human rights violations can be a mechanism to “shelter, protect, or guarantee [those] rights.”
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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