Condemned to Silence? Venezuela denies IACHR observation visit

vzla carnegieThe Venezuelan government has refused to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to conduct an observation visit. Refusal by Venezuela since 2002 puts the country in an “exceptional” situation in the region, the regional body noted, AFP reports.

During the 153rd session of hearings of the IACHR, Venezuelan non-governmental organizations (NGO) Committee of the Relatives of the Victims of February-March 1989 (Cofavic) and the Venezuelan Program of Education-Action in Human Rights (Provea) reported human right violations in Venezuela and limited access to official information. Saltrón stressed that NGOs are funded by the US government. Cofavic recorded 892 cases of alleged human rights abuses, out of which 823 were against the right to life; 154 more cases than the 669 cases recorded in the same period of 2013.

“The National Institute of Statistics (INE) indicated that poverty grew by 6%. Inflation leaped 56% and food inflation stood at 100%, and we all know that inflation hits mainly the most impoverish sectors,” Provea representative Marino Alvarado noted.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Venezuela have been increasingly under attack by a regime that seeks to control all means of communication, leaving limited room for independent journalism. While this trend is not new, over the past year the government has taken new steps to silence independent voices.  Government front men have purchased several popular media outlets,  most notably the media group Cadena Capriles, the TV station Globovisión, and Venezuela’s oldest daily El Universal. The government has also limited independent newspapers’ access to paper, leading 37 newspapers to reduce or suspend their print editions. Finally, the government has delayed the renewal of radio broadcasting licenses, leaving radio stations in a legal limbo and subject to arbitrary shutdowns.

For the past 12 years, the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad-Venezuela (IPYS-Venezuela), a Caracas-based organization, has supported independent and quality journalism through the promotion of freedom of expression, investigative journalism, and access to public information.  In October 2014, IPYS released its latest report on censorship and self-censorship in Venezuela.  This study gathers perceptions of 225 journalists, documenting the pervasiveness and types of censorship among public, private, independent, and community-based journalists.  Building on the main findings of IPYS’ latest report, this event will analyze the current state of freedom of the press in Venezuela, looking in particular into issues of censorship and self-censorship affecting the media landscape today.

The event will provide an opportunity to raise critical questions such as: What are the main drivers and characteristics of censorship and self-censorship in Venezuela today? Are journalists faced with new, greater threats? What tools has the Venezuelan government used to occupy or limit the media space? Are there new ways to promote freedom of expression in a highly digitalized society and to what extent does censorship impact the Internet? What can we expect in the months ahead in terms of freedom of expression?


The National Endowment for Democracy and

The Latin America and Hemispheric Studies Program at The George Washington University

cordially invite you to a panel discussion:

Condemned to Silence?

                                  The State of Freedom of Expression in Venezuela       


Marianela Balbi, Executive Director of Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad -Venezuela and

Sergio Dabhar, Venezuelan investigative journalist

Moderated by Silvio Waisbord

Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs

at The George Washington University

WHEN: Thursday October 30, 2014 @ 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm WHERE: George Washington University

Linder Family Commons, Room #602 at the Elliot School of International Affairs

1957 E St, NW, Washington DC, 20052

Please RSVP here

Marianela Balbi is a journalist with more than 30 years of experience.  Since 2012, she has served as Executive Director for Instituto Sociedad y Prensa-Venezuela, the most authoritative group on freedom of expression issues in Venezuela.  At IPYS-Venezuela, she leads the team in charge of monitoring violations to freedom of expression and access to information, coordinates the Program of Advanced Media Studies jointly with the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello.  Previously, she taught investigative journalism at the Universidad Metropolitana de Caracas.  An investigative journalist herself, she published the book El Rapto de la Odalisca (Aguilar, 2009).  She also worked at the national newspaper El Nacional  from 2002 to 2005.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in on communications from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, and a Masters on Latin American Literature from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 in Paris, France.

Sergio Dabhar is an independent journalist and book editor.  Over the past few years, he has edited and published several books and specialized journals investigating issues of corruption, freedom of expression, and governance in Venezuela.  He has completed an investigation on the government’s strategy for media control, from the Chavez’s Aló Presidente programs to the recent media takeovers under the Maduro Administration. From 2000 to 2006, he served as director of the national newspaper El Nacional.  He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and a Masters in Spanish literature at the University of Maryland.

Silvio Waisbord, Ph.D., is a Professor and former Director of Graduate Programs for the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. Prior to joining GWU, he was Associate Professor at Rutgers University and a fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at Notre Dame University. He is the Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics and has published extensively in both English and Spanish, including his most recent book Reinventing Professionalism: Journalism and News in a Global Perspective.  He obtained both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in sociology from the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), respectively. He completed his doctorate in sociology at UCSD as well.


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After the Arab Spring: support for democracy high, political Islam in decline

arab barometer

Despite the setbacks of the Arab Spring, support for democracy remains high while support for political Islam has decreased, according to Michael Robbins, the director of the Arab Barometer, and Mark Tessler, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and the author of “Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens” (Indiana University Press, 2015).

Interacting these two trends, a key finding of the Arab Barometer is that Islamic democrats – those who support both democracy and political Islam – are becoming scarcer across the region, they write for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

islam and politics in mideastArab publics continue overwhelmingly to support democracy. In all but one country surveyed, three-quarters or more of respondents in the third wave of surveys (late 2012-2014) agree or strongly agree with the statement “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other political systems.” This belief is most widespread in Lebanon (85 percent) and Egypt (84 percent), followed by Tunisia (83 percent), Algeria (82 percent), Jordan (81 percent), and Palestine (81 percent). Although lowest among the countries surveyed, overwhelming majorities also favor democracy in Iraq (76 percent) and Yemen (73 percent).

Since the Arab uprisings, support for democracy has decreased the most in Iraq and Yemen, falling by 10 points and 9 points, respectively. …. Support for political Islam is substantially lower. In no country do more than half of respondents say religious leaders should have influence over government decisions. It is often far less support, including just 34 percent in Algeria, 27 percent in Tunisia, 20 percent in Egypt and 9 percent in Lebanon. Moreover, support for political Islam declined over the past decade. …..

There are two exceptions to this trend: Jordan and Tunisia. In Jordan, support for political Islam has held relatively steady across all three surveys. ….In Tunisia, there has been no significant aggregate change in support for political Islam. ……

Examining attitudes toward democracy and political Islam simultaneously provides additional insight into the types of political system that Arab publics favor. The combination of the two measures yields four distinct orientations: democratic secular, democratic with Islam, authoritarian secular and authoritarian with Islam.….

There has been no clear example of success in combining political Islam with democracy, which presents a challenge for Islamic democrats.


The Arab Barometer team will discuss findings from the project’s third wave of surveys at a public event at the U.S. Institute of Peace Oct. 31. A live Webcast will be available.

Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer(@arabbarometer). His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Democracy. Mark Tessler is the Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. He co-directs the Arab Barometer. He is the author of “Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens” (Indiana University Press, 2015).

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Spirit of Solidarity alive at Warsaw Dialogue

warsaw-dialogueCivil society is a key conduit between citizens and their governments through which such engagement should happen. Yet, in a troubling global trend, we are witnessing the shrinking of civic space, with a number of countries from Ethiopia to Russia having passed restrictive anti-NGO legislation, writes Anna Nadgrodkiewicz, Director of Multiregional Programs at the Center for International Private Enterprise.

Especially in such difficult environments, human rights defenders and democracy advocates need to know that they are not alone, that the ideals they fight for are universal, and that they are a part of an international community. That is exactly what the Warsaw Dialogue for Democracy helps to accomplish…. The Dialogue is a forum for the exchange of good practices and expertise in the evolution of democratic systems as well as a place to share success stories and challenges of democratic transitions.

This year’s event focused on the diminishing space for civil society globally, under the theme Keeping Society Civil. Securing Space for NGOs. It included practical workshops on topics such as making non-violent resistance effective or conducting advocacy for human rights, as well as plenary sessions with distinguished panelists. The opening panel featured Poland’s Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, Speaker of the Polish Senate Bogdan Borusewicz, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, and Executive Director of the European Endowment for Democracy, Jerzy Pomianowski.


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‘At least we have breathing space.’ Aung Din on Burma’s transition

Aung-Din.jpg.pagespeed.ce.pKr2nRvLkjThe exiled Burmese activist Aung Din recently returned to his native country for the first time in 16 years, following the path of many other formerly exiled activists who have returned since President Thein Sein’s government began introducing political reforms in 2011.

An important student leader during the 1988 democratic uprising, Aung Din sat down with The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw to discuss his experiences as an exiled activist and to share his views on Burma’s democratic transition.

Q: The 1988 pro-democracy uprising came to nothing, but now reforms are taking place. Do you think this democratization can succeed? Have we reached a point of no return?

A: Not yet. It depends on how much both sides value the breathing space. On the ground, there is dishonesty, mutual disinterest and conflicts of interest. In particular, some people in the ruling class do not want to accept change. Some want to reverse. In the past, the military was the affiliate of the Socialist Programme Party. Today, the military is a separate entity. The military is stronger than the USDP. The USDP is not an affiliate of the military, but an ally.

Since the military is a separate entity now, changes can’t take place if the military does not follow along, no matter what the government wants to do. Circumstances have already been created for the ruling class and the military to gain the upper hand.


Aung Din spent years in Washington D.C. running the influential US Campaign for Burma, which he cofounded. In 2012, he was awarded the Democracy Award by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy, together with Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr. Cynthia Maung, Min Ko Naing and Khun Tun Oo.

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US-Africa Summit still resonates with Great Lakes civil society



Recently returned from a tour of the Great Lakes Region, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Dave Peterson reports that the recent US-Africa Leaders’ Summit continues to resonate with local civil society groups and political leaders. 

Burundi is at a crossroads.  It has been steadily drifting away from its former democratic promise, and as elections loom next year and the violence increases, political space has been decreasing.  President Nkurunziza has been trying to revise the constitution and extend his term in office.  But the parliament, dominated by his own CNDD-FDD party, nevertheless showed its independence and turned him down.  His security forces had arrested one of the country’s leading human rights burundi mbonipaactivists, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa (right), on trumped-up charges and held him for months, despite his advanced age and poor health.  Civil society organized a campaign that galvanized supporters across the country; they lobbied embassies, who were the only ones the Burundian authorities felt compelled to listen to; and President Obama called for his release in his address at the UN general assembly.   I was in the country when Pierre-Claver was released, and along with parliament’s decision, it was widely heralded as a triumph for democracy, tugging Burundi back in the right direction. Of course Burundi is far from being out of the woods yet.  Nkurunziza may yet figure out a way to stay in power, and Burundi’s many other governance challenges, including corruption, remain formidable.  But support for a dynamic civil society and sustained diplomatic pressure in concert with others in the international community has been proved to make a difference.

Rwanda continues to be a paradox and an enigma.  President Kagame may also be trying to extend his term in office by changing the constitution.  No doubt he is paying close attention to what transpires in Burundi.  For the most part, he maintains the same iron grip, there is very little free political space; civil society, the media, and the political opposition are seriously emasculated.  Of course the country is peaceful and continues to develop rapidly.  Corruption is low and investment is up. 

Civil society is compelled to engage the government on its own terms, never going over the “red line.”  In the wake of various reforms and new laws, the claim is that there is actually more space for human rights advocacy and independent media than anyone is taking advantage of.  Those who have tested this proposition have not always fared well, self-censorship prevails, the culture of fear and paranoia continues.  One of my Burundian interlocutors observed that, in the case of Rwanda, a minority regime is compelled to deliver good governance to shore up its legitimacy; in the case of Burundi, the government’s legitimacy is not in question, so it can afford to neglect good governance with a vengeance.  Economic development has satisfied the vast majority of Rwandans, and only the elites squabble about politics, goes one narrative.  But my Burundian friend said he would not want to trade places with his Rwandan counterparts, and prefers to live in the relative freedom of Burundi.

africaSo of course, no one wants to throw out the baby with the bath water.  A strategy of engagement with the Rwandan government, praise and encouragement for the progressive things it has done in terms of the Africa Summit agenda, good governance, women’s empowerment, peacekeeping assistance; all this is in order.  But steady pressure on the human rights and democracy front is also bearing fruit.  The slight cut-off of military aid had an impact.  Modest reforms have occurred in the media and NGO sectors.  Conditions in prisons have improved slightly.  There are more lawyers and judges.  The government’s discourse has become slightly more open.  The Rwandan government may get annoyed and protest, but the cajoling helps, and assistance to civil society can further enhance the political environment.

The biggest challenge is the DRC.  Every city and province of DRC has a different perspective and I was in just three, so I can’t claim to have a comprehensive picture.  NED’s special contribution in terms of the Summit was a modest side event we held that brought together leaders of the political opposition as well as the government to discuss the constitutional revision and term limits question.  I should stress that the Summit provided the context for this meeting, which would otherwise have been much more difficult to pull off.  There was still a lot of interest in this meeting everywhere I went with my NED colleagues, Rudy and Pierre.   Along with the statements from Feingold and Kerry on not touching the constitution, the NED event seems to have added to the pressure the government is feeling.  We intend to follow it up.  This kind of leadership and diplomacy has again complemented the appeals of civil society and the church in DRC, provided greater legitimacy to the opposition, encouraged alternative voices within the Mouvement Presidentielle, and perhaps stiffened the spine of our international partners.  Again, I can’t recall hearing ever before so much enthusiasm for US government policy in DRC.  There is, however, concern that the stated policy will not be sustained.

Although the challenge in DRC is daunting, there are grounds for hope.   The focus of course, needs to be on the democratic process, not personalities.  Respect for the constitution, meaning Kabila must step down.   He gets a little credit for his performance, but not much.  In Kinshasa, the population seems to be swooning under the burden of heavy taxes and a struggling economy.  Corruption and human rights abuses continue.  The opposition is repressed.  His shake up of the military has led some to speculate that he might try to stage a coup if he does not get his way with the extension of term limits.  The logistical challenges and time frame for the election process are formidable.  The country seems poised to descend again into political chaos, if not civil war.  Nonetheless, civil society is mobilizing to support a credible election process, encouraging participation, training monitors, advocating for reforms, and engaging the CENI.

From the North Kivu perspective, DRC is already embroiled in chaos and civil war.  Armed militias identifying with various political interests roam with impunity, raping and pillaging.  The government authorities are unaccountable, weak and useless.  Among our civil society friends, the sentiment ranged from despair to stubborn perseverance.   Kabila was unpopular, but I don’t recall much enthusiasm for the electoral process.  They were stolen last time and that will most likely happen again.  The security situation was the main preoccupation, human rights abuses a constant concern and the politics of Kinshasa seemed far away.

Lubumbashi was upbeat in comparison.  There, in Kabila’s homeland, he is quietly challenged by the governor from his own party, the PPRD, Moise Katumbi, who appears to be doing a decent job of governing and is reasonably popular.  In Lubumbashi, civil society groups were focusing on issues such as accountability in the mining sector and access to justice.  The mining industry is keeping the economy going and the depredations of the separatist Bakata Katanga in the north of Katanga seem to be under control, if not actually serving the interests of Katumbi.  The assessment from Katanga would be that Kabila’s main challenge comes not from the political opposition, radical or otherwise, but from within his own party and the Mouvement Presidentielle.  

Thus, for the DRC, following up the Summit will entail an insistence on the constitutional, democratic process.  It will not be popular with some in the government, but there are others, even within the government, who will welcome it.  Kabila himself might still be persuaded of the merits of a soft landing, especially if his hard-core supporters find themselves increasingly isolated.  More dialogue could be helpful, but it must expand beyond the political elite.  The levels of American and international assistance for the election process have not been as generous as they were in the past, and more intensive, tough engagement  is going to be needed to salvage it.  But it is not hopeless, and the consequences otherwise are likely to be dire.

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