Journalists remain at risk

New York, April 17, 2002—In the aftermath of last week’s failed coup against President Hugo Chávez Frías, Chávez supporters harassed several Venezuelan media outlets, CPJ has learned.

On Thursday, just before his ouster, Chávez had accused local broadcasters of conspiring to overthrow his government.

At around 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, when President Chávez was still in the custody of the military officers who briefly forced him out of office, his supporters surrounded the offices of the private television channels Radio Caracas Televisión, Globovisión, and Venevisión.

At Radio Caracas Televisión, demonstrators smashed windows with stones while yelling insults at station staff. At around 1 a.m., the station evacuated most of its personnel, according to local press reports.

Earlier that night, while pro-Chávez protesters were calling for his reinstatement, Chávez supporters in the government forced Radio Caracas Televisión to broadcast news from Venezolana de Televisión, the state-run channel.

On Sunday, April 14, most Caracas-based dailies, including the national circulation El Nacional and El Universal, did not publish, allegedly because they feared being attacked by Chávez supporters. Both El Nacional and El Universal evacuated most of their personnel on Saturday.

On Monday, Sergio Dahbar, deputy editor of El Nacional, was quoted in El Universal as saying that unidentified men on motorcycles had been firing guns into the air near the paper’s offices.

Meanwhile, during the coup, the constitution had been suspended, and the Congress and the Supreme Court, among other government institutions, had been dissolved.

“We remain deeply concerned for the safety of Venezuelan journalists,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “In the last few days, journalists have faced harassment, assault, and the suspension of all constitutional protections for press freedom by the coup leaders.”

Politicized atmosphere
According to various international reports, several media executives on Saturday met with Pedro Carmona, the head of the Venezuelan business association Fedecámaras, who had been installed as president by the coup leaders.

Private television channels featured little, if any, news coverage of last weekend’s pro-Chávez demonstrations. Venezuelans had to rely on CNN and Colombian and Spanish channels for news about the protests.

Some journalists have alleged that private media executives, who have generally been staunch opponents of the president, ordered reporters not to cover the pro-Chávez demonstrations, and some have resigned in protest, according to local reports.

Private TV stations claim they could not cover the story for fear that their staff or offices would be attacked by Chávez supporters, who besieged several media outlets earlier in the year.

Many Venezuelan journalists now avoid carrying press credentials and reporting on the streets, and some who did cover the unrest were targeted by pro-Chávez supporters, according to local reports. A number of them have left their jobs alleging harassment by Chávez supporters.

Last week, Venezuelan journalist Jorge Tortoza died after being shot in the head while covering the violent clashes in Caracas.

Chávez and the press
The relationship between the president and the media has long been antagonistic. Chávez and his supporters accuse the Venezuelan press of distorting facts and undercovering the achievements of the Chávez administration. The president has often lambasted the media for their alleged lack of objectivity. His supporters have harassed and, on occasion, attacked news crews.

Currently, all television stations are back on the air, papers are circulating, and Chávez has taken a conciliatory stance toward the media. In a press conference held Monday, April 15, the president admitted that his government had abused the cadenas_his nationwide radio and television broadcasts_by repeatedly interrupting television programming early last week.

Chávez also acknowledged that it was a mistake for him to single out individuals for criticism during his cadenas. In the past, he has often named journalists and media owners during his broadcasts.