Academics Turn Blind Eye to Violations of Freedom of Press


A group of self-described “Latin-American Experts” has written an open letter blasting the US media for suggesting it would be “ironic” for Edward Snowden to seek exile in Venezuela or Ecuador. According to the scholars who wrote the letter, “even if [the irony] were based on factual considerations” it would be “irrelevant” since the mainstream media has taken a comparatively less-than-critical attitude toward the US government.

While the letter makes a valid point about domestic media hypocrisy, the attempt of the signatories to absolve the abuse of both freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Venezuela and Ecuador is inexcusable.

Arguing that “most media outlets in Ecuador and Venezuela are privately owned,” the signatories of the letter suggest that this would be akin to a US media landscape monopolized by Rupert Murdoch. But this wholly misses the point, which is that the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador, like the Cuban government, continue to use insult laws (‘leyes de desacato”) to punish political opponents.

Insult laws make it a criminal offense to bring discredit on public officials. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has declared insult laws incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights, pointing out that leyes de desacato are used “as a means to silence unpopular ideas and opinions, thereby repressing the debate that is critical to the effective functioning of democratic institutions.” While insult laws remain on the books in many countries, it is no longer common practice to invoke them — at least in those states with a reasonably robust separation of powers. In Latin America, however, insult laws remain a point of contention.

Citing a recent case in Ecuador that saw President Rafael Correa take legal action against a columnist and three newspaper executives over an opinion piece that referred to the president as a “dictator,” the signatories of the open letter point out that Correa eventually pardoned the four men, who had been sentenced to three years in prison. However, the “experts” are incorrect when they say that “all that Correa did was exercise his right as a citizen under the law to sue someone who had printed an outrageous lie about him.”

Insult laws offer a higher level of protection to public officials than is offered private citizens. According to the IACHR, “[t]he use of desacato laws to protect the honor of public functionaries acting in their official capacities unjustifiably grants a right to protection to public officials that is not available to other members of society. This distinction inverts the fundamental principle in a democratic system that holds the Government subject to controls, such as public scrutiny, in order to preclude or control abuse of its coercive powers.”

The attempt of the “Latin-American Experts” to absolve state overreach in Venezuela is even more obtuse. Referring to the case of veteran Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda, who was recently called to testify before the attorney general for his alleged role in post-election violence, the scholars argue that criticism is premature. They write that “Bocaranda has not been charged with anything; the Venezuelan government wants to know whether Bocaranda helped incite violence following the April 14 presidential elections.” Oddly, but ostensibly in support of this point, the open letter links to an article published by the official communications agency of the Venezuelan government. The headline of the article reads: “Twitter account of Nelson Bocaranda unleashes violence against CDI and Cuban doctors” (Twitter de Nelson Bocaranda desata violencia contra CDI y médicos cubanos). It is hard to believe the Venezuelan government is interested in knowing “whether” Bocaranda played a role in inciting violence when the state communications agency has already indicated that he did. With this, the “experts” have undermined their own credibility.

The twenty-eight scholars who signed the open letter are all well-known professors of Latin-American Studies in the United Kingdom and the United States. That includes Greg Grandin, who sidelines as the executive editor for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), which is circulating the scholars’ open letter. In a 1984 research brief, the Heritage Foundation called NACLA the “pioneer” of a burgeoning cottage industry dedicated to supporting Marxism-Leninism in Latin America. Then, as now, NACLA remains a staple resource for Latin-American Studies programs in the United States and Canada.

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