CARACAS, Venezuela, July 23 (UPI) -- A new Venezuelan government office is at the forefront of official efforts to limit public debate in the country, Human Rights Watch said.
The answer, the campaign group said, is to close down the organization.
The Center for Situational Studies of the Nation was recently created on orders of President Hugo Chavez, who earlier shut down or took control of several independent media outlets and groups that gave voice to critics of the government's policies.
Venezuela suffered major shrinkage in economic growth this year after prolonged drought and what critics called government mismanagement. Chavez hit back at critics, but shortages of consumer goods, electricity and water remain and have angered citizens.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas' director at Human Rights Watch, said Venezuela's government should stop seeking to discredit human-rights defenders and prosecuting critics.
On June 1, 2010, Chavez issued a presidential decree creating Centro de Estudio Situacional de la Nacion. The new Center for Situational Studies of the Nation was given broad powers to limit public dissemination of "information, facts or circumstance[s]" that it decides should be confidential.
CESNA will operate within the Ministry of the Interior and Justice to "compile, process and analyze" information from government offices and civil society "regarding any aspect of national interest."
Chavez also called for criminal investigations into human-rights organizations trying to operate in the country. Chavez said the organizations were funded from the United States.
Human Rights Watch said the government failed to provide protection for human-rights defenders who received threats. Instead, the campaign group said, authorities chose to prosecute critics of government actions or policies.
"President Chavez has created a new tool for controlling public debate in Venezuela," Vivanco said. "The new decree would allow the president to block the discussion of topics that are inconvenient for his government, blatantly violating the rights of expression and to information, which are at the heart of a democratic society."
CESNA's senior officials have been vested with powers to declare that "any information, fact, or circumstance" should be "reserved, classified or of limited release."
Any subsequent release by government officials of information that could "compromise the security and defense of the nation" is now subject to criminal penalties under the Venezuelan National Security Law.
In addition, the decree opens the way for further restrictive legislation, Human Rights Watch said. A clause in the decree provides that laws, rules of procedure or other norms determined by the government may grant the center new powers.
Human Rights Watch said the decree's language was so broad that it could allow the government to block dissemination of information, not only by state entities but also by non-state actors, including civil society groups and the media.
The American Convention on Human Rights explicitly prohibits such censorship, and such arbitrary restrictions on the right to receive and impart information are incompatible with Venezuela's obligations as a party to the ACHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the campaign group said.