Is Chávez Quelling Dissent with Anti-Defamation Law?

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Juan Barreto / AFP / Getty Images

Guillermo Zuloaga speaks to the press in November 2009

Guillermo Zuloaga isn't exactly a paragon of responsible journalism. In 2002 he and his Venezuelan television network, Globovisión, backed a military coup against democratically elected President Hugo Chávez. Since then, Globovisión has been so gratuitously and vociferously anti-Chávez it makes Rush Limbaugh's attacks on Barack Obama seem even-handed.

So who could make a media martyr out of a guy like Zuloaga? Chávez may well have done it on March 25, when his left-wing government arrested Zuloaga for making comments "offensive and disrespectful" to the President. Speaking in Aruba the week before, Zuloaga had remarked that it was a shame Chávez wasn't overthrown in the failed April 2002 coup and said the putsch happened because Chávez had ordered his forces to fire on antigovernment protesters, an opposition charge that has never been proven. Zuloaga went on to argue that Venezuela lacks freedom of expression because Chávez is increasingly harassing independent media, including Globovisión, a network Chávez has repeatedly threatened to shut down. "Chávez," said Zuloaga, who denies the defamation-against-the-state charge and is now free on bail, "is setting up a disguised communism."

Provocative stuff — but in few countries would it merit the five years in prison Zuloaga could get if he's convicted under Venezuela's defamation laws. Another Chávez opponent, former Zulia state Governor Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, was arrested on March 24 for suggesting, on Globovisión, that Venezuelan officials had aided the Basque terrorist group ETA, and that Venezuela had become a key transshipment point for drug traffickers. (He denies the charge of spreading false information but remains locked up, say prosecutors, as a flight risk.) "The end of impunity for the bourgeoisie has come," Chávez declared. He rejected claims that the arrests were politically motivated efforts to stifle opposition to his 11-year-old revolution as the economy falters and he faces a growing challenge in this year's parliamentary elections. And he insisted that due process was being followed. "Who can criticize that?" he asked.

It's not due process of law that's being criticized in these cases. It's the law itself that's under international scrutiny, even in judicially challenged Latin America. "The real question is not the legality of these [criminal defamation] measures but their legitimacy," says Mariclen Stelling of the independent Media Observatory in Caracas. Carlos Lauria, Americas coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City, agrees: "There is a growing international consensus that laws that criminalize speech are not compatible with human rights." Last year, Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica scrapped their criminal defamation laws; Mexico and El Salvador became the first to eliminate them, at least at the federal level, in 2007. This year justices in countries including Colombia and Chile have dismissed a number of defamation convictions.

Speech that incites the violent overthrow of a government or physical injury to people is still a criminal offense in most, if not all, nations. But libel and slander are being moved to civil courts, where most jurists agree they belong, and out of the criminal arena — where the threat of prison sentences is often used by governments and élites to muzzle press freedom and dissent.

That regional trend puts Venezuela and its leftist Latin American bloc in a brighter spotlight. To be sure, other Latin countries still cling to criminal defamation laws, like Panama and most notably Honduras, whose own legal dysfunctions were exposed during its coup crisis last year. But Chávez and allies like Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa are giving those measures their most robust workout these days. The day after Zuloaga was arrested, an Ecuadorean judge convicted a newspaper columnist, Emilio Palacio, and sentenced him to three years in prison for calling the head of a state-owned bank a "loudmouth bully." The verdict was hailed by the bank chief, Camilo Samán — a chum of Correa, who is pushing laws to rein in what he calls Ecuador's "irresponsible" media. "Freedom of opinion," Samán said, "is not freedom to libel."

True. But incarcerating someone for merely an insult seems itself an insult to 21st century legal and democratic norms. The remarks of Zuloaga and Alvarez may have been incendiary, but they still don't rise to a level of criminal sedition: even publicly wishing a President had been overthrown eight years ago isn't the same as calling for his violent overthrow today. The Venezuelan laws, which make it a criminal offense to offend the President or public officials, or to spread "false information" that "causes public panic," are especially vulnerable to arbitrary interpretation — meaning Chávez's interpretation, say critics.

Granted, those detractors often exaggerate Chávez's grip on free speech in Venezuela, where his foes have enjoyed an open bullhorn compared to what dissidents face in communist Cuba — the model critics accuse Chávez and his allies of emulating. "Until now, the government has been careful to remain within a legal framework," says Stelling. But the media-intimidation climate, including revocations of private broadcast licenses as propagandistic state-run media proliferate, has gotten more acute along with Chávez's efforts to consolidate socialism. In the process, as Stelling suggests, Chávez is thinning the democratic Teflon he's worn since taking office in 1999 — and, she says, he may well be galvanizing rather than cowing his opposition by giving it more victims to rally around.

There are also hypocrisy factors involved. Conservative governments like Honduras' insist they're on a mission to stop the spread of Cuban-style autocracy in their region — and yet they seem oblivious to how Cuba-like their criminal defamation codes make them look. On the left, Chávez and Correa say they're out to curb insults — and yet Chávez rarely gives a speech that doesn't hurl a caustic catalogue of them at enemies at home and abroad, while the Mexico City think tank Ethos counted 171 separate insults in just 48 of Correa's radio and television broadcasts last year. What's more, many of the leftists in Chávez's government were once victims themselves of criminal defamation laws enforced by the corrupt élite he toppled.

Zuloaga was part of that venal establishment. Which is why it's all the more shameful that Chávez now risks making him a sympathetic victim.

— With reporting by Charlie Devereux / Caracas; Stephan Kuffner / Quito