Venezuelans harshly punished if they insult Chávez

The Miami Herlad

Posted on Tue, Sep. 26, 2006

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called President Bush ''the devil'' during his speech before the U.N. General Assembly -- a statement that was quickly disseminated by the media.
But this is not the first time that Chávez talks about a foreign president or a foreign presidential candidate in this sort of way. He also referred to Alan García, the current president of Peru, as an ''irresponsible demagogue and thief;'' accused former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, of being ''subordinate'' to U.S. interests; and called Mexican President Vicente Fox a ''lapdog'' of U.S. imperialism.
Chávez's words were correctly criticized from a diplomatic point of view, and many -- including I -- consider his conduct at the United Nations inappropriate. However, Chávez has a right to express himself as he did. But his double standard is worrying. According to the new criminal code, if someone makes similar comments about him in Venezuela, this person could be subject to criminal prosecution.
Chávez should be able to make statements as those mentioned above if he considers that other individuals don't agree with his own political views. In democracy, political dissent is not only necessary but essential. It is also very common, and in many cases includes harsh criticisms.
According to the European Court of Human Rights, the protection of freedom of expression applies 'not only to `information' or 'ideas' that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness without which there is no 'democratic society.' '' The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also recently reiterated that a greater margin of tolerance should exist in the case of statements and opinions related to matters of public interest.
In Venezuela, however, the criminal code reformed during the Chávez administration says, in its article 147, that, ``Any person who offends, verbally or in writing or in any other way does not respect the president of the republic or the person serving in that capacity shall be punished with a prison term of between six and 30 months, if the offense was serious, and of half that duration, if it was slight. The punishment shall be increased by one-third if the offense was made publicly.''
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights considered that this article is not in accordance with international standards. It argued that the threat of criminal liability for issuing a value judgment or an opinion related to a public official's work can be used as a method to suppress criticism and political adversaries. This does not change even if the expression is considered offensive.
Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the president may ''ask the National Assembly to amend any of the provisions of the law or rescind its approval of part or all of it.'' When the Venezuelan National Assembly sent Chávez the law reforming the criminal code, he asked to amend some of the provisions of the law but not article 147.
If Chávez understands that he may refer to other presidents in the way that he did, why didn't he veto article 147? When he launches these attacks, Chávez either considers himself exempt from the repressive rules that he applies to his own critics, or he is not even aware of any inconsistency. It is difficult to decide which is worse.
Furthermore, enacting this kind of legislation does not contribute to Venezuelan democracy because the fear of criminal sanctions necessarily discourages people from voicing their opinions on issues of public concern.