Attacks on the Press 1999: Venezuela

President Hugo Chávez Frías, who took office in February in a landslide victory, excoriated the press for criticizing his plan to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. Voters ratified the constitution in December by an overwhelming margin; journalists worry that an amendment guaranteeing the public’s “right to timely, truthful, and impartial information” could be used as justification to censor critical stories.

Chávez, a former paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup and was elected president in December 1998, took office pledging to lead a “peaceful and democratic revolution” and to rid the country of poverty and corruption. In an April 25 plebiscite, 85 percent of voters supported Chávez’s plan to hold elections for a constituent assembly empowered to draft Venezuela’s 26th constitution. Chávez supporters won 121 of the 131 seats in the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) during elections held on July 25.

Relations between the government and the largely pro-opposition press were tense during the first part of the year, but the most serious complaint from journalists was that the government was ignoring their criticism. Relations became more antagonistic after a provision calling for “truthful information” (información veraz) was included in the draft constitution. Venezuelan journalists have long opposed such an amendment; they successfully blocked an effort by previous president Rafael Caldera to include it in the amended constitution that he proposed in 1992.

In a November 12 letter to President Chávez, CPJ wrote that the notion of a “right to timely, truthful, and impartial information” represented an attack on press freedom, since the government could conceivably restrict information it deemed to be untruthful or partisan. CPJ held Chávez directly responsible for ensuring that Venezuela complied with its obligations under international law.

Chávez stepped up his campaign for a “yes” vote toward the end of November, lashing out at “unpatriotic” media magnates who opposed what he called a “peaceful people’s revolution.” Speaking on his radio program on November 28, he accused the publisher of the leading national daily El Universal, Andrés Mata, of orchestrating a campaign “against the approval of the constitution, against the Bolivarian revolution, against the majority of Venezuelans, against social justice and progress.” Subsequently, Chávez proceeded to attack the Bloque de Armas, the publishing company that owns El Universal, along with 2001, Meridiano, and Meridiano Televisión.

Also on November 28, El Universal quoted the president of the Coro-based religious station Radio Guadalupana, who is also archbishop of Coro, as saying that it was dangerous to give Chávez so much power. The next day, two members of the Board of Military Intelligence (DIM) visited the station and asked a technician to clarify the president’s statement.

On November 30, Radio Guadalupana received intimidating phone calls while an announcer was reading a Venezuelan Episcopal Conference document that called on the population to vote “responsibly” on December 15. Someone who identified himself as a DIM member ordered the presenter to stop reading the document (the order was not heeded).

In an October 3 interview published in the Miami paper El Nuevo Herald, Chávez claimed to be “the only person whose freedom of expression has been violated during my government.” Chávez was referring to a decision of the National Electoral Council (CNE) to pull the plug on his television and radio program because the president was violating the law by openly campaigning for his leftist Patriotic Pole (PP) coalition in the ANC elections.

On May 23, Chávez hosted the first broadcast of his weekly radio talk show, “Aló, Presidente.” The show became an instant hit, prompting Chávez to start a similar weekly television program on a state-run channel, “De Frente con el Presidente” (“Face to Face with the President”), and his own government-funded weekly newspaper, El Correo del Presidente. Chávez says that the newspaper, which hit the stands on July 5, will serve as an alternative to the mainstream media, which he charges is biased in favor of the country’s corrupt political elite. Chávez is listed as the paper’s editor in chief.

On July 14, the CNE announced it was pulling the plug on Chávez’s programs because he was openly backing candidates from his coalition in the ANC elections. Instead of hosting his television show the next day, Chávez delivered a nationally broadcast television address during which he fiercely attacked the CNE, saying it was participating in a conspiracy to suspend the July 25 vote.

On July 22, thousands of Chávez supporters, many wearing his trademark red paratrooper’s beret, demonstrated outside the CNE. Stuffing money in cardboard boxes, they tried to pay the US$7,700 fine that the CNE had imposed on the president.

Chávez displayed an equally thin skin with regard to international news coverage of his presidency. He used his August 22 radio program to accuse The New York Times of publishing “gigantic lies” in an August 21 editorial that called him a “potentate” who sought to concentrate power in the presidency. On September 22, a group calling itself the Congreso de Artistas e Intelectuales protested international media coverage of Chávez’s revolution by staging a peaceful sit-in at the Caracas bureau of The Associated Press. The group remained in the bureau for eight hours, asking for the publication of a three-page communiqué that claimed that “important news organizations” including The New York Times and The Miami Herald were conspiring against Chávez (the AP did not publish the communiqué.)

The ANC, meanwhile, drafted a new constitution that not only introduced the “truthful information” provision but also extended the presidential term from five to six years, allowed the president to run for a second term, abolished the Senate, gave additional powers to the military, and changed the name of the country to “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

On the same day the new constitution was overwhelmingly approved, flooding engulfed the country, claiming tens of thousands of victims and causing enormous damage. On December 29, the day the constitution entered into force, Chávez accused the media of distorting the realities of the floods. In particular, he accused The Miami Herald of being a “distribution center of lies.” The daily had published an article saying Chávez’s government knew of the imminent danger the country was facing before the flooding actually occurred and had taken advantage of the emergency situation to further concentrate powers in the hands of the executive.

At year’s end, local journalists expressed concern about the resignation under government pressure of Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition daily El Mundo. In a December 29 editorial, El Universal noted, “The high powers of State conspired to liquidate the free exercise of democracy…If that doesn’t worry us, what other aggression do we need before we become alarmed?”