On March 9, 2020, Governor of the State of Zulia Omar Prieto called for the investigation of University of Zulia (UZ) professor Freddy Pachano after he raised concerns about potential new cases of COVID-19, forcing Pachano to flee the country.
Pachano is the director of postgraduate studies at UZ’s Medical School, a pediatric surgeon, physician, and director of the National Council of Directors and Postgraduate Coordinators of the Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences. On March 7, Pachano reportedly posted on Twitter that there were potential cases of COVID-19 at the Maracaibo University Hospital. Two days later Pachano posted about two other potential cases of COVID-19 and criticized the Zulia State government for its handling of the pandemic, alleging in particular that it had spread disinformation.
Later that day, at a press conference, Prieto denounced Pachano’s social media comments about potential COVID-19 cases. Prieto said that if the potential COVID-19 cases were false, he would ask the Public Ministry to prosecute Pachano and that Pachano must be investigated. Pachano subsequently fled the country to avoid arrest.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the threat of investigation and prosecution by a government official against a scholar in apparent retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Venezuela is a party. States have an obligation not to interfere with expressive activity so long as it is exercised peacefully and responsibly. Threats of prosecution in retaliation for nonviolent free expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.