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does the PSUV want credibility on free speech?

November 12, 2010

If the PSUV wants to retain its credibility regarding free speech and free expression, it should immediately repeal article 148 of the Venezuelan Penal Code, which reads:

Whosoever verbally or in writing offends, or in any other manner disrespects the President of the Republic or whosoever acts in his stead, will be punished with six to thirty months in prison if the offense was aggravated, and half that amount if it was simple. The penalty will be increased by one-third if the offense was given publicly.

Quien ofendiere de palabra o por escrito, o de cualquier otra manera irrespetare al Presidente de la República o a quien esté haciendo sus veces, será castigado con prisión de seis a treinta meses si la ofensa fuere grave, y con la mitad de ésta si fuere leve. La pena se aumentará en una tercera parte si la ofensa se hubiere hecho públicamente.

Think about that for a second. If we had such a law in the US, Jon Stewart would be racking up decades of jail time each night. (As opposed to just severely pissing off Harrison Ford.) FOX’s lawyers would be plenty busy, for sure. Kanye West might have stayed in jail into 2008.

Think about the implications of that last line. Extra jail time for a public offense. Which means that the three to thirty months spelled out above pertain to offenses given in private?!?! Uttering the sentence, “Hugo Chávez is a bad president” in your own living room merits three months of jail?

Really?

“No,” you are saying, “of course not, that’s absurd. That’s not the spirit of this law. It would never be interpreted in that way.”

My first response would be to ask how any interpretation of this law is justifiable. Under what conditions should a symbolic act of disrespect be punishable?

My second response would be to mention the case of Miguel Angel Hernández Souquett, a 49 year old Venezuelan who went to a baseball game on Margarita Island with a homemade t-shirt that read: “Hugo, I shit on your revolution.” (“Hugo, me cago en tu revolución.”) According to El Libertario, Miguel has been summoned to appear before the Court on Dec. 1 to face the charge of “Offense to the Chiefs of Government” (“Ofensa a los Jefes de Gobierno“).

We should note that nothing on the summons definitively relates it to the t-shirt, nor do we have any way of knowing if the gentleman in the photo is the Miguel Angel Hernández Souquett in question. So we should retain some skepticism. Assuming this is a true story, however, this guy is going to be facing a minimum of four months in a Venezuelan jail because he wore a t-shirt with a political slogan? What the hell is that?

Whatever it is, it isn’t socialism. And it isn’t justice.

It is, however, bad news for those of us who would like to be able to defend the Bolivarian revolution. It legitimizes the Interamerican Press Society (Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa / SIP) – who warned against articles 148 and 149 in Feb. 2005 as it was being revised – and thus reinforces that group’s overly narrow interpretation of free speech.

That’s something else to think about: The National Assembly revised these articles in 2005, five years after the original law was passed. The changes were minimal, basically restructuring the grades of punishment corresponding to offenses against different officials. Shitting on the Vice President’s revolution, for example, is only half as serious as shitting on Hugo’s. And you’ll only do two months for a serious verbal offense against a town mayor. How did the Assembly manage to iron out these details without recognizing the utter absurdity of the articles?

What makes a verbal or written offense aggravated, anyway? A certain number of decibles? A large enough type? The use of expletives? If the latter, then Miguel may be looking at eight months of jail.

If the Venezuelan government proceeds with this farce, it will be looking at a serious loss of credibility.

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