Tal Cual and IVIC cases show that freedom of speech is not alive and well in Venezuela

February 24, 2007

In the short span of a week, the ugly head of censorship and disregard
for the basic right of freedom of expression guaranteed by the
Venezuelan Constitution, surfaced in Venezuela, this time in two cases
covered by this blog before. First, Teodoro Petkoff’s newspaper Tal
Cual was found guilty of violating the privacy of the President’s
daughter and fined (Posts here, here and here
on this case). Then, physicist Claudio Mendoza was punished by the
Board of Directors of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research
(IVIC) for daring to express his opinions (posts here, here and here on that topic) and refusing to back down or apologize for what was considered as “a disrespectful article” by the authorities.

in both cases, what we are seeing, once again, is simply an attitude
ingrained in Chavez’ Government, that they are the holders of the truth
and anyone who dares step over the line will be punished sufficiently
to induce fears in others, thus limiting freedom of expression in a
very broad way. Either you are with them, or you are punished, they
know the truth and you have to adapt to it, as easy as that.

case against Petkoff is quite emblematic, because in a sense, he has
been very outspoken against the Chavez Government and the quirks and
faults of the revolution. And Petkoff is unlikely to back down from the
position he has defended, because he probably still thinks that he is
somehow still untouchable, until the day he ceases to be. But the
signal to less powerful media outlets, who will not receive the attention that
Petkoff’s Tal Cual received, is very clear: Either you stay within the
bounds of what the autocracy wants or else! That message had already
sent to the broadcast media, some, like Venevision and Televen, decided
to confine and limit themselves and are thus protected, other like
RCTV, continued their fight and outspokenness and they will be punished
in May by having their license revoked. Even worse, while Chávez today claimed private property would be respected,
the Minister of Communications has clearly said that unless an
agreement is reached to buy RCTV’s equipment, it will be expropriated.
What a strange concept this Bolivarian private property is, I guess it applies to their property, but not that of their enemies.

So, it is
now time to go directly against the print media, now that the broadcast
media is under control. And the Tal Cual case clearly shows it. The
judge simply responded to a public request by Hugo Chavez. Ironically,
it was Chavez himself who violated his daughter’s privacy by telling a
nationwide TV audience how she had advised him on changing the
country’s coat of arms. This led to a humorous and very non-intrusive
piece by Laureano Marquez, which, if anything, treated Chávez’ daughter
with a certain level of endearment. This led to a fine against Tal Cual
and Marquez by a judge’s decision, which is so confusing an
unprofessional, that the Prosecutor is asking for clarification of what
it implies.

Claudio Mendoza’s case is closer than many think to
that of Tal Cual. Claudio’s opinion article in El Nacional was a
serious description of what it takes to build a nuclear bomb, but much
like Laureano’s it also used wit to point out the total disregard for
experts’ opinion that this Government has. I have covered the case
extensively, but essentially Mendoza was asked to “prove” what he was
saying and threatened with being fired, even if in the end he was only
removed from his position as Head of the Computational Physics
Laboratory at IVIC.

One could argue that holding such a position
should be a decision of the authorities of that institution and thus
Mendoza’s removal is a non-event. That is far from being the case.
First of all, being Head of a Laboratory has always been considered an
academic position and thus not subject to political or
administrative changes. But the suggestion that this was a
non-political or “normal” decision simply unravels, when the Director
of IVIC said in an interview in El Nacional
that the “punishment was soft”. Thus, it is clear that Mendoza was
“punished” for his personal opinions about the country’s disregard for
“experts” in all fields, as well as its possible nuclear intentions. This is simply censorship and there is no way to hide. Remarkably, they don’t even try!

first question is why was the punishment, in the end,  so “soft”? I believe
the answer lies in the fact that a large group of researchers from
IVIC, led in Claudio’s own words to Adriana Villanueva in today’s El Nacional by
“the scientific women who are braver than most”, signed a petition
questioning the investigation of Claudio’s article by IVIC’s Board and his firing would
have led to an even larger confrontation within that Institution. However, the impact of
censorship was felt even in this petition, when many refused to sign it
so as not to get into trouble. Indeed, it is not easy when you are
academically insecure, to sign a petition against the body that decides
your promotions, your tenure, your budget and who you may hire or not to work with

But there was likely a second reason for the restraint in
the punishment. Venezuela has many distinguished scientists who are
well respected beyond its borders and many of them contacted
Associations and Journals abroad and, had Claudio been fired, there would have
been significant international repercussions that at least for now, the
Board of IVIC was not willing to face.

But the attitude is
there. Claudio was supposed to be “disrespectful” against his own
institution, which was curiously never mentioned in the text of his opinion piece
and much like the case of Chavez’ daughter, it was Chavez himself who
stated publicly in 2005 that Venezuela had a right to explore the use of nuclear
energy, signing cooperation agreements with Iran, who is not precisely
on the side of only peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

But it is not a
matter of disrespect as the interview with IVIC’s Director reveals. He
clearly shows his ignorance or disregard for the freedoms granted by
the 2000 Bolivarian Constitution, which unequivocally says in its Art.
57 that “all people have the right to express freely their thoughts,
their ideas or opinions in a loud voice, in writing or any other form
of expression and make use for it of any communication or broadcasting
media, without the possibility of establishing censorship
”. But, in the
opinion of the Director of IVIC, handpicked by Chavez despite losing
the election to that position:

“Nobody can give an opinion
freely without having responsibility for the opinion. Freedom of speech
has limits
, so do researchers…We thought he would back down, but he did
not do it. That was the drop that overflowed the glass and we did not
dissimulate it”

There you have it, as clear as water, a fascist
statement in black and white and at its best, going as far as stating
that they did not even try to fake it. Can it be any clearer than that?

whole thing is so ridiculous, that the IVIC Director in his own
opinion, incurs in the same “disrespect”, but this time against the
Foreign Policy of the Government he serves with such servility. He
clearly says:

“He can not say that the country is on its way to
manufacture nuclear weapons. If that is said by a physicist from a
scientific institution it is something serious and one cannot be deaf or
mute. He (Claudio) placed Venezuela together with Iran and North Korea, something that would question the country internationally

what? This statement would seem as disrespectful to Venezuela’s leader
and his foreign policy as Mendoza’s article was to IVIC. Iran and North
Korea, more the former than the latter, are considered to be good
friends of Venezuela and the autocrat and at a time that Iran is not complying with
international nuclear regulations, Venezuela and Hugo Chavez have
signed agreements with Iran on nuclear cooperation. Chavez has hosted
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at least three times in the last
two years, so that suggesting that Mendoza’s naming of Venezuela in the
same context as Iran, is as much of a “disrespectful” opinion on the
part of IVIC’s Director towards his almighty boss, as Mendoza’s charge
that Chavez interest in nuclear energy goes beyond peaceful uses is
disrespectful towards his scientific institution..

And this is
in the end the question: Why is it that Chavez revives the nuclear
question? Has he been advised that this is a priority? Or is it simply
a repeat of the Venezuelan military’s fascination with nuclear matters?
It is always the military that have wanted to promote nuclear research
and development in Venezuela. That’s how it started in the 50’s and it is
periodically revived. But the scientists have never been big promoters
of it, unless it led to some funding for esoteric use of nuclear technology. But like a boomerang, the topic is revisited periodically
whenever some military officer who thinks he knows what he is talking
about, brings it up again. And much like all members of the nuclear
club or those that aspire to be part of it, at the beginning, only
peaceful uses are mentioned or suggested as the words “sovereignty” and
“self-determination” are also thrown into the discussion.

the truth is that there is no valid reason today to make Nuclear
Physics or its uses a priority in Venezuela and it certainly collides
with the broad outlines of that absurd contraption called “Mision
Ciencia”. But in the back of the minds of ignorant military officers, a
nuclear weapon is the ultimate power trip, a toy to beat and replace all military toys, a sublime ego booster, a possible geopolitical catapult for the all-mighty leader.

And that in itself simply proves that Mendoza was absolutely right in what he said.

It is all part of this crazy militaristic folly called the Bolivarian revolution and that, my friends, is simply my opinion.

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