Venezuelan Human Rights Experts Call for End to “Media Distortion” of Protests

On March 21st 2014, thirty six Venezuelan human rights activists analysed the overall situation in the country, arguing that there has been a purposeful distortion of the situation by the mass media and even some NGOs for political reasons. As both left-wingers and human rights activists, they emphasise that there is a persistent misrepresentation of the issue of human rights in Venezuela, representing a national and international disinformation campaign. These media outlets have generally spoken of brutal government repression of students with legitimate demands, suggesting therefore the existence of systematic and generalised violations of the human rights of peaceful protesters.


However, this group of activists refute such a claim. For example, while some NGOs defending the pro-opposition students have publicly released statistics showing high levels of government mistreatment of protesters, including torture and arrests, the Attorney General’s office has received much fewer denunciations. The UN’s torture spokesman, for example, has spoken only of two or three cases of which he is aware.


One big problem is that many denunciations have been made through media or social networks, and have accompanied images that don’t match the Venezuelan reality or that have been rejected publicly by witnesses. Equally, the number of violent confrontations between citizens has been much greater than the number of those between citizens and state security forces. There has also been a deliberate omission of the violent character of many of the protests.


After five weeks of protests, the official toll is 461 wounded and 1,854 arrested, of which 121 remain in custody. The majority of those arrested were given bail conditions and the rest were freed without charge. Thirty three people have unfortunately lost their lives. Of these victims, 17 died in street blockades, 15 in the context of street protests and one was shot while leaving a student meeting. Twenty seven of the victims were civilians (among them a public attorney and a maintenance worker with the Mayoralty of Caracas), and the other six were officers of security bodies. Of the overall toll, 28 died from gunfire as a consequence of the political violence, four were ‘violations of the right to life’, and one was an accident.


Three deaths are attributed to the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by security officials in the control of disturbances at the end of marches organised by the opposition. These denouncements involve SEBIN (intelligence service) officials and a National Guard (GNB) officer. Another victim died as a result of blows received during a local protest repressed by the GNB.


Ten murders were presumably committed by civilians, with five opposition victims and three GNB officers shot. The other two victims included a worker who had been on a government-organised peace march and a Chavista student leader. A teenager was also run over by a civilian who tried to pass through a street blockade by force.


Of the 17 who died as a result of barricades, seven were motorists or passengers of vehicles that couldn’t dodge obstacles placed on the road. Eight suffered shots from firearms; in the other cases a protester was stabbed (during a dispute) and another accidentally fell from a building. Three civilians and three GNB officers died as a result of gunfire from a building while trying to clear barricades to open the road.


The Character of the Protests


While shortages of certain foodstuffs, personal insecurity, the high cost of living and other reasons have been given as the motives for the protests, many protesters and opposition leaders have stated that the ultimate aim is to force the constitutional president, Nicolás Maduro, to resign. This attitude, along with the cases of civilian deaths stated above, shows that, while there have been peaceful marches and demonstrations, there is also evidence of the use of firearms by demonstrators in many of the incidents recorded. The president has also announced the seizure of a variety of weapons, and that 21 of the security officials wounded during the control of protests had been shot.


In particular, the supposedly ‘peaceful’ barricades have been very dangerous, affecting main and secondary roads in middle and upper income sectors in eight of the country’s 335 municipalities – all of which are governed by opposition mayors. Cables, barbed wire, felled trees, and rocks have been used, and tyres and rubbish have been set on fire. The covers of public drains have also been lifted, leaving holes in which at least two motorcyclists have died. Social network exchanges and media testimonies reveal that those who participate in this type of protest believe they are at war. Evidence of opposition collusion with unconstitutional, violent protest tactics can be seen in the fact that opposition politicians and student leaders have not condemned the deaths and injuries suffered as a result of these barricades. Nor have they condemned the fact that the blockades have caused children to miss classes, sick people’s transport to be obstructed, and rubbish to be left in the street. Only the pro-opposition mayor of Valencia, Miguel Cocchiola, has rejected the use of violent blockades and, as a result, has been expelled from his political party – Voluntad Popular.


At the same time, it also appears that the use of snipers, “armed strikes”, sabotage and selective assassinations has begun, and Chavista houses have even been marked in certain areas.


The large number of peaceful opposition protests that have been allowed in previous years shows that the government has been respectful of the constitutional guarantees of such democratic expressions. Nonetheless, faced with the violent character of the barricades in the current protests, the State has seen itself obliged to use the means at its disposal to maintain public order and the protection of innocent citizens, with adherence to the law and full respect for human rights.


The Conduct of the Judicial Apparatus


The Attorney General has informed the public that her “office is investigating 59 cases of presumed violations of human rights and 17 officials of different security bodies are being held in custody,” with 22 of these a result of the violent acts which have occurred in recent days.


One of the biggest problems in the administration of justice is that many denunciations have been made via the media or social networks, rather than to the relevant authorities. In other cases, the testimonies of the victims have been found to be inaccurate.


According to the Attorney General, the SEBIN officers and the GNB involved in the deaths of three citizens are currently being processed. Meetings have also been held with NGOs to investigate further denunciations.


There is No Systematic Policy of Human Rights Violations


Insisting that all violations of human rights should be condemned and fully investigated, the group of activists emphasises that the Attorney General has assured citizens that, “if an officer, no matter their rank, commits a crime of torture, cruel, or inhumane treatment, we are going to punish them” and that “arbitrary arrests” will not be permitted. President Maduro has also recognised the need for security officers involved in human rights abuses to be investigated and punished. On top of these statements, measures have also been adopted by different state powers to tackle the violent protests and confront the cases of abuses by security forces. These actions, according to the activists, show a clear political will to resolve this crisis peacefully and with respect for the human rights of Venezuelan citizens.


The abuses that have been committed in the current situation reflect the need to continue with the profound reforms of the state’s security forces established in the Venezuelan Constitution. Important achievements have already been made since Chávez’ election in 1998, they say, but the government must ensure that such reforms receive due urgency.


Overcoming the conflict


As both the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have affirmed, Venezuelan society can indeed deal with the current crisis independently. The invocation to foreign intervention found in the discourse of a sector of the opposition is completely unacceptable, affirms the group of activists, and will not help to end the conflict within the parameters of the constitution.


However, both the government and the opposition must seek a dialogue-based solution immediately. Violent protests and media manipulation cannot resolve the problems that the opposition claim are behind the current protests. They can only be solved through the institutional channels offered by the constitution. The violent attempts to oust the democratically-elected president currently place many protesters at odds with the Venezuelan Constitution and international law. Equally, the refusal of opposition leaders and protesters to participate in dialogue or condemn violent tactics simply adds fuel to the fire of the current crisis.

Open and transparent national dialogue is the only legitimate and harmonious way to end the escalation of violence. The recently called National Peace Conference should be the platform that makes this dialogue possible. The refusal of the Democratic Unity Table (MUD) to participate in the conference is of great concern, although business groups, religious organisations, political party leaders, students, social and cultural movements, regional and national governmental authorities, and representatives of public powers have attended. And proposals have already been made with a view to resolving the problems supposedly at the heart of the protests.




The group of human rights activists summarises, in conclusion, their demands, emphasising their repudiation of human rights abuses and their desire for these to be investigated. Whilst urging families and victims to denounce abuses to the relevant authorities, they also urge the government to ensure that the conditions facilitating the abuses are dealt with.


At the same time, they strongly condemn the violent protests of minority sectors of the population and the use of human rights dialogue for political purposes. They also ask human rights organisations and the world’s media to monitor with greater objectivity and investigative integrity the current events.


In addition to these demands, they criticise the manipulation of facts to support an opposition that has unconstitutional and undemocratic goals. Likewise, they call on opposition leaders to follow the advice of Amnesty International and urge “followers not to commit violent acts, including attacks against people because of their political preference”. They also call on these sectors of the opposition to join the dialogue initiatives organised by the government.


Adapted from

About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
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