Attacks on the Press 2000: Venezuela

THE ANTAGONISTIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MEDIA and President Hugo Chávez Frías, coupled with some alarming legal developments, prompted CPJ Americas program coordinator Marylene Smeets to visit Venezuela in October to investigate the situation. Read her special report on Venezuela.

The report concludes that the president’s verbal fusillades seem to have given the population and authorities license to attack journalists. Reporters were verbally and physically harassed on various occasions last year. In two examples of what Venezuelans have come to label “judicial terrorism,” the courts blatantly violated due process guarantees in criminal defamation cases where three journalists were forced to go into hiding to avoid unwarranted arrest.

While concerns remained, Chávez did not resort to overt repression against the media last year. At the beginning of 2000, a group of journalists who were alarmed by Chávez’s hostility to the press created an advocacy organization called the Asociación Civil Información y Libertad (ACIL). But ACIL was apparently inactive at year’s end because the censorship that journalists feared had not come to pass.

Ben Amí Fihman, Exceso
Faitha Nahmens, Exceso

A judge ordered the detention of Fihman, editor of the monthly Exceso, and Nahmens, a reporter with the magazine, in connection with an ongoing criminal defamation case.

Ginebra Martínez de Falchi had filed suit against the two journalists and Exceso in 1997, in response to an article by Nahmens in the June 1997 issue of the magazine. Titled “Bad Blood,” the piece recounted the December 1996 murder of Casto Martínez, father of the plaintiff, and his business links with fugitive former banker Folco Falchi, the plaintiff’s husband.

Fihman and Nahmens faced a prison sentence of six to 30 months, while the paper faced a fine of 100 million bolivars (US$143,236). Exceso offered Martínez space to reply to the allegations, but this offer was declined.

From the start, the legal proceedings were marred by due-process violations. Martínez’s lawsuit failed to mention which parts of the Exceso article were allegedly defamatory. And the investigation proceeded so slowly that it passed the legal deadline (February 12, 1999) by which it should have been either concluded or dropped.

In December 1999, Fihman and Nahmens filed an amparo (a writ that asserts violations of individual freedoms by government agencies or the judiciary) with the Supreme Court, urging that the case be dismissed on the grounds that it dragged on past the legal deadline.

On February 9, while the Supreme Court appeal was still pending, a lower court judge held a trial hearing that the two journalists failed to attend. (Fihman claims they were never officially notified of the hearing.) That same day, the judge issued a detention order to compel the journalists to appear in court, whereupon they went into hiding.

On March 27, Fihman and Nahmens appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for injunctive relief. On April 3, the IACHR recommended that all legal measures against the two journalists be stayed for a period of six months. On April 8, Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel announced that his government would comply with the IACHR ruling.

Only then did the Supreme Court admit the amparo, according to Fihman. On May 17, the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to hold hearings on the question of whether the investigation had exceeded its legal time limit. On September 4, after protracted legal maneuvers, the case was finally dismissed.

Martínez appealed this decision on September 18. Her appeal was rejected on October 13.

La Razón
Pablo López Ulacio, La Razón

López Ulacio, editor of the weekly La Razón, went underground after boycotting hearings related to a prominent businessman’s criminal defamation suit against his paper. Prior to the editor’s disappearance, La Razón was twice barred from publishing information related to the suit, and López Ulacio himself was twice placed under house arrest.

The suit was filed by Tobías Carrero, a businessman with close ties to President Hugo Chávez Frías and National Legislative Assembly president Luis Miquilena. Carrero claimed that the honor and reputation of his insurance company, Multinacional de Seguros, had been damaged in September 1999 articles by La Razón journalist Santiago Alcalá.

Alcalá, author of a column called “El Quirófano” (“The Operating Room”), reported that in February 1999, the state-owned Guarantees and Banking Deposits Fund (Fogade) failed to solicit competitive bids before awarding major contracts to Multinacional de Seguros. Alcalá raised similar questions about the September 1999 auction of the state-owned radio group YVKE Mundial to four radio stations controlled by Carrero.

The suit was filed under Article 444 of the Criminal Code, which allows judges to impose criminal penalties, including jail sentences, in defamation lawsuits brought by private individuals.

On June 30, Carrero’s lawyer, Mayra Vernet, filed a petition to close down La Razón with presiding judge David Pérez. Pérez rejected the petition but issued an order prohibiting the newspaper from publishing information related to the suit.

On July 8, López Ulacio was placed under house arrest after he failed to attend a series of court hearings related to the suit. In a telephone interview from his home, López Ulacio said he had boycotted the hearings to protest what he believed were tainted proceedings.

On July 10, Chief Court Inspector René Molina called on Judge Pérez to recuse himself from the case, citing his “evident partiality.” Pérez complied two days later, and the case was transferred to a new judge, Graudy Villegas.

Villegas revoked the house-arrest order against López Ulacio on July 13, but continued to bar La Razón from publishing information related to the lawsuit. López Ulacio’s lawyers subsequently asked Judge Villegas to overturn Judge Pérez’s order. Judge Villegas refused, but scheduled a new court hearing for August 4.

López Ulacio also boycotted this hearing, and then became a fugitive when Judge Villegas ordered him placed under house arrest.

López Ulacio’s lawyer, Omar Estacio, argued that the house-arrest order violated “basic rules of criminal procedure, which do not expressly prescribe house arrest for contempt.” He also claimed to have received anonymous threats for defending López Ulacio.

The case was later brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On November 8, CPJ wrote a letter to IACHR executive secretary Jorge Taiana and IACHR special rapporteur for freedom of expression Santiago A. Canton, arguing that López Ulacio could not hope to receive a fair trial in Venezuela. On February 8, the IACHR granted injunctive relief.

At press time, the journalist was living in exile in Costa Rica.