During 2001, supporters of President Hugo Chávez Frías clashed with the opposition over the government’s political and economic policies, while in December the business sector called for street demonstrations to protest anti-business legislation. Venezuela’s political situation–along with Chávez’s popularity–appeared tenuous at the end of the year.
Amid such tension, the antagonistic relationship between the media and the president took a turn for the worse. While the local press can still report the news freely, Chávez’s increasingly harsh rhetoric and a series of disturbing legal actions bode ill for freedom of expression in Venezuela.
Chávez has effectively used the media to solidify his popularity and marginalize the independent press. Through cadenas, his wildly popular impromptu radio and television shows, he has rallied support, recounted anecdotes from his daily life, and excoriated his opponents–including the press, which he has labeled the “anti-social communications media.” In addition, Chávez routinely used public media to pursue his own agenda and that of his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) party.
Last year, during a broadcast of Chávez’s popular radio show, “Aló, Presidente,” the president criticized Elías Santana, coordinator of the civic group Queremos Elegir, host of the radio program “Santana Total,” and a columnist for the Caracas-based daily El Nacional. Santana filed suit, demanding that he be given the right to reply on a subsequent broadcast of the show.
But the Supreme Court denied Santana’s petition, ruling on June 12 that the right to reply was intended to benefit only individuals who do not have access to a public forum, not media professionals. The court then vastly exceeded the limits of the case and went on to create a set of criteria defining what constitutes “timely, truthful, and impartial information.” The right to “truthful” information was incorporated into Venezuela’s constitution in 1999 despite objections from media groups.
Under the Supreme Court ruling, journalists may now express opinions only if they do not contain insults that are “out of context, disconnected, or unnecessary for the topic; or offensive, insidious, or degrading.” In addition, if a publication claims to be independent, but the majority of its columnists subscribe to the same ideological beliefs, the publication could be in violation of the new standards. The ruling also permits prior censorship in some cases.
On July 21, the newspaper association Bloque de Prensa Venezolano protested the Supreme Court ruling in a petition filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The commission was still evaluating the case at year’s end.
On October 18, the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) began investigating the 24-hour news channel Globovisión to determine whether it had violated media broadcast regulations by reporting “false” news during an inaccurate September 29 report that the station corrected later the same day. Conatel could fine the station or suspend its license temporarily or permanently. On October 29, the office of the IACHR’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression declared its concern about the investigation, and contended it was based on legislation contrary to the principle of press freedom. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
In late October, the First National Conference of Popular Communicators, a group of community media representatives sponsored by President Chávez’s party, issued worrisome recommendations, including “imposing censorship on sensationalist media and domestic media that distort truthful information” and asking Conatel to ban comic programs that “deteriorate the image of the President.”
Pablo Aure Sánchez, free-lancer
Military intelligence agents detained lawyer and columnist Aure for allegedly insulting the military in a letter that was published in the Caracas daily El Nacional on January 3, 2001.
Aure’s letter described the armed forces as weak and unworthy, dismissing Venezuelan soldiers as more “castrated” (castradas) than “military” (castrenses). In his letter, Aure claimed that public esteem for the military had sunk so low that “we imagine them parading…in multicolored panties”–a reference to an ongoing campaign in which colorful women’s underwear was anonymously sent to military officers to insult their manhood.
Aure told CPJ that on January 4, then defense minister Gen. Ismael Eliécer Hurtado Soucre denounced him to the attorney general while asking that a military tribunal also try the case. On January 8, Aure was detained at his home and taken to the Board of Military Intelligence. There, Aure said, he was stripped and put in a small cell without a bathroom.
The next day, Aure was taken before a military judge, Lt. Col. César Rodríguez Urdaneta of the Third Military Tribunal, who ordered the columnist jailed in Ramo Verde Prison. Amid a national outcry, Aure was released the following day (January 10) on health grounds.
On February 2, Aure told CPJ, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that military courts did not have jurisdiction in his case. Since then, the case has been pending with Judge César Sánchez Pimentel of the civil Eighth Tribunal of Control.
In June, the Attorney General’s Office asked Sánchez to dismiss the case. At year’s end, Aure told CPJ there had been no new developments in his case.
Pablo López Ulacio, La Razón
López Ulacio, exiled editor of the weekly La Razón, faces prison in connection with a criminal defamation case if he returns to his country. The Venezuelan government has refused to comply with recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) that Venezuelan authorities take steps to guarantee López Ulacio’s basic rights.
In October 1999, Venezuelan businessman Tobías Carrero filed criminal defamation charges against La Razón. Carrero claimed that La Razón had damaged the honor and reputation of his insurance company, Multinacional de Seguros, in columns by Santiago Alcalá that were published in September 1999.
Carrero is known to have close ties to President Hugo Chávez Frías and other members of the government. Alcalá’s columns alleged that Multinacional de Seguros had won government contracts due to favoritism. He claimed that favoritism had also influenced the auctioning of state-owned radio stations to a media company that Carrero controls.
The legal proceedings against La Razón have been marred by numerous due-process violations. Defense lawyers were barred from gathering evidence in the United States that might have confirmed La Razón‘s allegations. The paper was prohibited from publishing any information relating to the case, a clear instance of prior censorship. And in August 2000, after López Ulacio boycotted several court hearings to protest what he saw as tainted proceedings, the court ordered him placed under house arrest.
López Ulacio’s lawyer, Omar Estacio, argued that this order violated “basic rules of criminal procedure, which do not expressly prescribe house arrest for contempt.” Fearing unjust detention, López Ulacio fled the country after the order was issued.
Estacio subsequently asked the IACHR to intervene with Venezuelan authorities on López Ulacio’s behalf. On February 7, the commission granted his request, asking the authorities to respect due process in the case, to lift prior censorship of La Razón, and to refrain from arresting López Ulacio. The IACHR asked that these measures be taken within 15 days, Estacio told CPJ.
On February 22, Estacio filed a petition with the judge in the case, María Cristina Reverón, asking her to comply with the commission’s recommendations. He renewed his petition on February 23 and 28, and on March 5 and 12.
On March 13, Judge Reverón ruled that Estacio could not act on behalf of López Ulacio until the journalist had actually been arrested. That same day, Estacio appealed the judge’s ruling to the Caracas Penal Appeals Court. The court eventually overturned Judge Reverón’s decision and ordered her to rule on Estacio’s petition.
More than five months later, Judge Reverón was still defying the higher court’s orders. On June 26, Estacio said, she confirmed the arrest order against López Ulacio, specifying that he should be detained in a Caracas police station.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, withheld official information concerning the IACHR decision from local judicial authorities until June 20.
On July 17, CPJ wrote a letter to IACHR’s then-special rapporteur for freedom of expression Santiago A. Canton, urging him to do everything in his power to ensure that López Ulacio’s case was heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the OAS body whose decisions are legally binding on Venezuela and other countries that have accepted its jurisdiction.
At press time, Venezuelan authorities had yet to comply with the commission’s requests, and López Ulacio was still unable to return to his home country without running the risk of being unjustly detained.
The Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) opened an investigation into Globovisión, a 24-hour television news channel, to determine whether the station had violated media broadcast regulations by reporting false news. Conatel had the power to fine the station and suspend or cancel its license.
On September 29, Globovisión reported that nine taxi drivers had been attacked and killed the previous night. In fact, only one had been killed. Globovisión issued a correction that same day.
But during an October 4 public ceremony, President Hugo Chávez Frías railed against Globovisión for being against the “peaceful and democratic revolution” he had promised after taking office in 1999. Since then, Chávez has repeatedly assailed “the media of the oligarchy.”
According to the Caracas-based daily El Nacional, the president stated that the government controls broadcasting frequencies and warned, “Don’t be surprised if I, for reasons of national interest, revise these [broadcasting] concessions.”
In an October 18 letter, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ, Conatel notified Globovisión that the commission was investigating the station’s violation of 1941 broadcast media regulations, which forbid the transmission of false news and require information to come from trustworthy sources. The letter said Globovisión had 10 working days to present its defense.
On November 2, Conatel general director Jesse Chacón Escamillo told the Caracas daily El Universal that his agency was an independent, technical entity; that it had not received any request to investigate from any government agency; and that it had started looking into the Globovisión case before Chávez made his statements. However, most Venezuelan analysts believe that the investigation is a politically motivated act ordered by President Chávez.
CPJ issued an alert about the case on October 24. On November 8, El Universal reported that Conatel, at the request of Globovisión, had extended the station’s deadline to respond to the charges until November 13. The case was ongoing at year’s end.