February 15, 2002
His Excellency Hugo Chávez Frías
President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Palacio de Miraflores
Via facsimile: 58-212-806-3221
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by the numerous cases of harassment and intimidation against the Venezuelan press that we have documented during the last six weeks.
CPJ believes these acts are the logical result of Your Excellency’s relentless diatribes against the media. We urge you to refrain from making the sort of harsh statements that may lead your followers to target the press.
In recent weeks the already tense relations between your government and the press have worsened amid signs that your popularity is declining and that society has become increasingly polarized. In March 2001, CPJ noted that your verbal attacks undermined the credibility of the press, making journalists vulnerable to legal and even physical attacks. We are now concerned that such fears may have materialized.
We would like to express our concern about the following incidents in particular:
In a January 6 radio broadcast, Your Excellency referred contemptuously to the Caracas daily El Nacional and accused one of its journalists, Yelitza Izaya Yánez, of “disrespect” and “lying” after she reported that demonstrators in the Caracas neighborhood of Catia protested your visit by banging pots. The next evening, some 100 supporters of Your Excellency’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) surrounded the offices of El Nacional for two hours. Some of the protesters were armed with baseball bats and sticks, according to local news reports. During that time, the paper’s employees could not leave the building for fear of being attacked by the protesters.
On January 10, El Nacional filed a complaint with the Washington, D.C.based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The next day, the IACHR asked the Venezuelan government to adopt so-called precautionary measures designed to guarantee the physical safety of El Nacional‘s staff and uphold their right to freedom of expression. Venezuelan authorities have agreed to adopt the measures.
On January 13, the “Caravan for the Truth,” a column of around 30 vehicles loaded with MVR supporters, paid threatening visits to several media outlets in Caracas. The MVR demonstrators first congregated in front of the El Nacional offices, where they banged pots and demanded that the paper “tell the truth” about your administration’s achievements. Later, they staged demonstrations in front of the offices of Radio Caracas Televisión and the Caracas daily El Universal.
On January 20, a team from the television channel Globovisión, including reporter Mayela León, cameraman Jorge Manuel Paz, and assistant Jhan Bernal, was attacked by a crowd of Your Excellency’s supporters while covering a broadcast of your weekly radio program, “Aló, Presidente,” in the Caracas
neighborhood of 23 de Enero. The mob surrounded Globovisión’s van, kicking and rocking the vehicle and hurling insults. After soldiers intervened, the Globovisión journalists left without finishing their reporting assignment. A Radio Caracas Televisión team led by reporter Luisana Ríos was also manhandled during the broadcast, according to local press reports.
On January 29, Globovisión asked the IACHR to grant precautionary measures in favor of the journalists who were assaulted. On January 30, the IACHR sent a letter asking that the Venezuelan government adopt the measures in favor of the journalists from Globovisión and Radio Caracas Televisión. Venezuelan authorities have agreed to adopt the measures.
On the morning of January 31, two men on a motorcycle launched a homemade explosive device at the entrance of the daily Así es la Noticia, part of the publishing house CA Editora El Nacional, which also owns El Nacional. The attackers fled after throwing flyers that accused Así es la Noticia editor Ibéyise Pacheco and three other journalists of orchestrating a campaign against “the process of change.” The explosion shattered the glass door at the entrance but caused no injuries.
Ten minutes after the attack, an unidentified caller said that another bomb would go off in the building’s parking lot. 200 employees were evacuated from the building. The police arrived minutes later but did not find any explosive. In statements quoted by El Nacional, Rafael Vargas, minister of the presidential secretariat, dismissed the attack: “What exploded in front of the daily Así es la Noticia was, practically, a match box that was put there to cause alarm.” The Ministry of Interior and Justice has since assigned police to protect the paper’s facilities and staff.
Pacheco told El Nacional that she had received several anonymous phone threats on the night before the attack. The caller told her that her house and her newspaper would be raided. The threats came one day after Pacheco and journalists Marianela Salazar, Patricia Poleo, and Marta Colomina made public a video showing Venezuelan military officials and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas discussing the release of a kidnapped Venezuelan citizen with alleged links to Colombian paramilitaries. The video suggested close collaboration between the Venezuelan military and the FARC.
On February 4, a crew from the television channel Venevisión, led by reporter Rafael Garrido, was harassed while covering public celebrations of the 10th anniversary of Your Excellency’s February 4, 1992, coup attempt. Unidentified individuals tried to push the journalists off a platform on which they were standing.
As the Venevisión crew made their escape, a window of their vehicle was smashed, according to local news reports.
While we commend you for the steps your government has taken to protect journalists, CPJ also believes that Your Excellency’s verbal attacks on the media may have contributed to the current climate of intolerance. We urge you to demonstrate your active support for press freedom by condemning all attacks on the Venezuelan press and by creating a climate in which journalists may fulfill their professional duties without fear of reprisal.