Journalist Detained in Venezuela for FB Posts under Anti-Hate Law

A woman fills a jerrycan with water at a pumping station in San Juan de los Morros, Guarico state, Venezuela on July 10, 2018. – In San Juan de los Morros, there are two or three power cuts every day, people spend several days without water or internet, and to wait for public transportation can take hours, in the midst of an hyperinflation spiral and a severe shortage of food, medicines and basic goods. The crisis in public services intensifies away from the capital. (Photo by Federico PARRA / AFP)

HAVANA TIMES — The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed alarm at the use of Venezuela’s Anti-Hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence to jail journalist Wilmer Quintana García. Quintana was arrested for several posts published on his personal Facebook page alleging corruption in the provision of public services in Guárico state, according to a local press freedom group and news reports.

On July 18, the Venezuelan criminal and forensic investigative police bureau (CICPC) detained Quintana in the city of San Juan de los Morros, the capital of Guárico state, according to a Twitter post by Venezuelan freedom of expression group Espacio Público and media reports.

Quintana had directed the now-defunct weekly newspaper La Verdad and had anchored the opinion program “En Portada”–where he commented on local and national news along with guests–on several local television stations, including SiembraTV and Roscio TV, according to local media, but is not currently working for any media outlet.

According to the warrant, a copy of which was posted on Espacio Publico’s website, Quintana’s arrest was ordered on July 11 by a local criminal court on charges of “incitement or promotion of hate” under the anti-hate law, allegedly committed against Guárico Governor José Manuel Vasquez and the president of the company Alimentos Guárico (Alguarisa), Emilio Ávila.

Local media outlets and Espacio Publico report that Vasquez filed a complaint against Quintana due to posts on Quintana’s personal Facebook account that criticized alleged corruption by Vasquez and Avila in the provision of domestic gas to communities and in the distribution of food through the CLAP program, a government-run social program managed by Alguarisa in Guarico. The warrant does not mention the social media posts.

“Wilmer Quintana’s detention under Venezuela’s anti-hate law confirms the concern we expressed when it passed: the law is really a tool to censor information and punish critics,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick in New York. “Allegations of corruption against public officials are not hate speech. Venezuelans must be free to question the government without facing years in prison.”

Quintana used his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to comment and report on current political and local events, adding the hashtag #LAVERDAD—the name of his now-defunct newspaper—to some of his posts.

In a July 5 Facebook post, using the #LAVERDAD hashtag, Quintana reported that 27 areas of the city of Zaraza had not received gas, although payments had already been deposited 20 days earlier to Alguarisa, calling it “another failure of the governor” and asking whether Ávila had kept the money.

According to a journalist from Guárico who spoke via telephone with CPJ on August 5 and asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, the information about the payments made to Alguarisa was leaked to Quintana, who kept close in contact with people working for the administration, and he proceeded to publish it. Quintana had also worked for the local government under the previous administration, according to local media.

In Facebook posts dated July 4 and July 7 with the #LAVERDAD hashtag, Quintana wrote about the “lies and corruption of the misgovernment in Guárico,” reporting that the CLAP boxes were sold at higher prices than those publicized, and he named Vasquez and Avila in the post, saying that Vasquez “must leave the governorship so that it can be rescued from its total disaster.”

CPJ’s repeated calls to the phone number posted on the official website of the CICPC office in San Juan de los Morros and to the office of Guárico Governor Vásquez went unanswered. CPJ did not receive a response to an emailed request for comment sent to Alguarisa president Ávila.

The Anti-Hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence was approved by the National Constituent Assembly in November 2017 amid strong concerns that it could be used to intimidate the press. As CPJ documented at the time, the law fails to define basic terms like hate, leaving it open to broad interpretation and potential abuse, and mandates punishment and prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone who instigates hate or violence on the radio, television, in print, or via social media.

After his arrest, Quintana was detained at CICPC headquarters at San Juán de los Morros awaiting trial.

On August 6, the local Guárico news website and a Twitter post from local press freedom organization National Union of Press Workers (SNTP) reported that Quintana had been taken to the emergency room of Israel Ranuárez Balza hospital due to a possible heart attack. He remains at the hospital, according to SNTP.

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