During 2002, a worsening political crisis brought Venezuela to the brink of collapse and threatened to derail democracy there. As the degradation of state institutions continued, society’s extreme polarization and intolerance multiplied the risks for journalists.
Throughout the year, President Hugo Chávez Frías and his supporters accused the local press of distorting facts and under-covering his administration’s achievements. On Chávez’s weekly radio and TV program, “Aló, Presidente,” he often lambasted the media. In addition, he used cadenas–his nationwide simultaneous radio and television broadcasts–to counter the private media’s news coverage, which was heavily biased toward the opposition. Spurred by the president’s discourse, government supporters harassed and attacked news crews.
The private media continued to plunge into the political arena, unabashedly promoting the agenda of opposition parties while ignoring professionalism and balance. Because opposition parties in Venezuela are either discredited or divided, the media have stepped in to fill the vacuum, becoming an extremely powerful source of government opposition.
Events in April underscored the dangers for journalists covering the political crisis. On April 11, following three days of opposition protests, the government pre-empted broadcasts from local television stations for a message from President Chávez. During the address, private stations split the screen to continue covering the protests. Upset by this decision, Chávez ordered the stations closed and accused them of conspiring to overthrow his government. At around midnight that day, Chávez was ousted, and Pedro Carmona, president of the country’s most powerful business group, was appointed to head the new, military-backed Cabinet. But news of the coup resulted in protests by Chávez supporters, and within 48 hours, military officers loyal to Chávez had reinstated him. At least six photographers were shot and wounded while covering the violent clashes that preceded the April 11 coup. One of them, Jorge Ibraín Tortoza Cruz, an 11-year veteran of the Caracas daily 2001, died from his wounds on April 11.
In the days following Chávez’s ouster, the four main private TV channels featured scant coverage of pro-Chávez demonstrations. Venezuelans had to rely on CNN and Colombian and Spanish channels received by cable or satellite for news about the protests. Many foreign and local journalists alleged that private media executives had colluded to impose a news blackout, heeding instructions given by Carmona. But the executives claimed that they could not cover the story for fear that Chávez supporters, who had harassed several media outlets earlier in the year, would attack their staff or offices. Yet several local journalists pointed out that the events could have been covered without exposing journalists to unnecessary risks. Moreover, during previous political crises and instability, Venezuelan journalists did not stop providing the public with information.
During Carmona’s brief tenure, security forces at his command harassed journalists working for pro-government community media, while the state-run television station, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), was taken off the air on the evening of April 11 after being occupied by police forces that had joined the coup. VTV remained shuttered until April 13, when government supporters took it over and brought it back on the air.
Concerned about the effects of the April 11 events on journalists, CPJ sent a fact- finding mission to Venezuela in May. With information gathered from members of the media and human rights organizations during the trip, CPJ published a report in August titled “Cannon Fodder” describing the polarized and politicized environment in which Venezuelan journalists work. In more than a dozen interviews with CPJ, journalists said they were caught in the middle of the struggle between Chávez and media owners.
In early December, during an opposition-led general strike that paralyzed key sectors of the country, including the oil industry, government supporters attacked and harassed several journalists and private media outlets. In what looked like coordinated actions rather than spontaneous protests, pro-government demonstrators surrounded other private news offices. State security forces, meanwhile, assaulted reporters and photographers or impeded their work. Most private newspapers joined the strike and did not circulate for several days.
By the end of 2002, with the opposition strike extended indefinitely, both private and state media completely abandoned all pretense of objectivity and balance, offering propaganda in place of news and possibly undermining prospects for an Organization of American States-sponsored negotiated settlement to the crisis.
The government did not take firm action to investigate the numerous attacks against journalists and media outlets in 2002. The Public Prosecutor’s Office had little to show for its investigations into the attacks, including Tortoza’s killing. Often, journalists filed complaints with authorities, who never completed the initial investigations. The government’s failure to conduct thorough inquiries reinforced the impunity that has long prevailed in Venezuela and encouraged those who perpetrate assaults on journalists. Similarly, officials did not comply consistently with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ precautionary measures requiring the government to, among other orders, protect threatened media outlets and prevent attacks against journalists.
About 100 supporters of President Hugo Chávez Frías’ Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) surrounded the offices of the Caracas daily El Nacional for two hours in an apparent attempt to prevent the paper from publishing the next day’s issue.
For the duration of the siege, the paper’s employees could not leave the building for fear of being attacked by the protesters. Some demonstrators shouted, “Tell the truth or we will burn you,” and many were armed with baseball bats and sticks, according to local news reports.
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 precautionary measures designed to guarantee the physical safety of El Nacional‘s staff and uphold their right to freedom of expression. Venezuelan authorities agreed to adopt the measures and have opened an investigation into the incident.
Mayela León, Globovisión
Jorge Manuel Paz, Globovisión
Jhan Bernal, Globovisión
Luisana Ríos, Radio Caracas Televisión
A team from the television channel Globovisión, including reporter León, cameraman Paz, and assistant Bernal, was attacked by a crowd of President Hugo Chávez Frías supporters while covering a broadcast of his weekly radio and television 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 Ríos was also manhandled during the broadcast, according to local press reports.
On January 29, Globovisión asked the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to grant precautionary measures in favor of the journalists who were assaulted. On January 30, the IACHR sent a letter ask- ing that the Venezuelan government adopt the measures, and Venezuelan authorities agreed to do so.
Así es la Noticia
Ibéyise Pacheco, Así es la Noticia
Marianela Salazar, Así es la Noticia
Patricia Poleo, Así es la Noticia
Marta Colomina, Así es la Noticia
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 the daily El Nacional. The attackers fled after throwing flyers that accused Así es la Noticia editor Pacheco and journalists Salazar, Poleo, and Colomina of orchestrating a campaign against “the process of change.” The explosion shattered the glass entrance door 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, and employees were evacuated from the building. The police arrived minutes later but did not find a bomb. In statements quoted by El Nacional, Rafael Vargas, minister of the presidential secretariat, called the explosive device “practically, a match box.” 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, Salazar, Poleo, and Colomina had made public a video sýowing Venezuelan military offi- cials 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.
Carlos Pérez, Televén
Juan Carlos Toro, Televén
Carlos Toro, Televén
Cameraman Pérez, camera assistant Carlos Toro, and reporter Juan Carlos Toro, members of a Televén TV news crew, were attacked while covering an anti-government protest by students at Central University of Venezuela (UCV).
About 50 supporters of President Hugo Chávez Frías, led by political activist Lina Ron, attacked crowds of students who were congregating on the UCV campus to stage a protest against the government. The attackers included students who, in March 2001, had attempted a violent takeover of UCV aimed at installing a pro-government administration.
The attackers, reportedly members of the so-called Bolivarian Circles, which are neighborhood committees supported by the government, also threw stones and pipes at Televén’s vehicle, wounding Carlos Toro in the head, the Caracas daily El Universal reported. Juan Carlos Toro and Pérez took Carlos Toro to a clinic, where he was treated and later released.
The attackers also threw stones and bottles at the vehicles of private TV channels Venevisión and Globovisión, whose news crews had to leave the scene, according to Venezuelan news reports. At the request of UCV’s rector, Giuseppe Giannetto, the Attorney General’s Office filed charges against Ron and other attackers in late February. Ron was awaiting trial at year’s end.
Jorge Ibraín Tortoza Cruz, 2001
Jonathan Freitas, TalCual
Jorge Recio París, free-lance
Enrique Hernández, Venpres
Luis Enrique Hernández, Avance
Miguel Escalona, El Carabobeño
Freitas, a photographer with the newspaper TalCual; Recio, a free-lance photographer; Enrique Hernández, a photographer with the state news agency Venpres; and Luis Enrique Hernández, a photographer with the newspaper Avance, were attacked while covering violent clashes between opposition demonstrators and government supporters near the Miraflores Presidential Palace. Escalona, a photographer with the daily El Carabobeño, was attacked later the same day.
Freitas told CPJ that a bullet passed through his arm and lodged in his cell phone, which was in his vest pocket. According to Freitas, the shot came from the direction of government supporters. A police officer immediately took the journalist to the José María Vargas Hospital, where he was treated and released the same day.
Recio, who was hit in the back with a bullet, told the daily TalCual that the bullet came from an area where some Caracas Metropolitan Police officers were standing. The journalist was taken to the José María Vargas Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. He remained paralyzed from his chest down at year’s end, but doctors are hopeful he will be able to walk again.
Enrique Hernández was injured by a bullet that grazed his abdomen, and he was later hit in the head with a stone. He was treated for minor injuries and returned to work the next day. Luis Enrique Hernández, brother of Enrique Hernández, was hit with two bullets, one in the stomach and one in the kidney. He was taken to the José María Vargas Hospital, where he underwent surgery and had one kidney removed. The journalist was released from the hospital on April 22.
Escalona was attacked by unidentified individuals later that evening while he was taking pictures of the Miraflores Presidential Palace from Urdaneta Avenue. The attackers surrounded him, took his camera, and hit him in the head with a bat, according to El Carabobeño. Escalona was hospitalized and has since recovered.
The clashes came on the third day of a nationwide strike that led to a short-lived coup that ousted President Hugo Chávez Frías on April 11. He returned to power on April 14.
Radio Catia Libre
Venezolana de Televisión
In the hours that followed the April 11 coup that briefly unseated President Hugo Chávez Frías from power, several Caracas-based community media outlets and the state-run television station, Venezolana de Televisión, were harassed.
At around midnight on April 11, Chávez was ousted and Pedro Carmona, president of the powerful business association Fedecámaras, was appointed by some sectors of the opposition to head a new, military-backed Cabinet. However, news of Chávez’s ouster resulted in more protests, this time by his supporters, and within 48 hours, military officers loyal to Chávez had reinstated him.
During Carmona’s brief tenure, police raided several community media outlets, according to sources in Venezuela. Community media outlets, which covered the April 11 events, are mostly pro-Chávez. The police raids were carried out without court orders.
On April 12, about 12 police officers from the Technical Judicial Police raided the facilities of the community television station TV Caricuao. After the officers said that they were searching for weapons, station director Jesús Blanco let them in. When they found a military jacket belonging to station employee José Calles, they arrested him and took him away. Calles was released later the same day.
That afternoon, police officers from the Caracas Metropolitan Police raided the offices of the community radio station Radio Catia Libre. The police forced the door open and subdued station employee Leopoldo Monsalve. While the station’s offices were ransacked, police interrogated Monsalve, pointing a gun at him. Monsalve was taken away and released about two hours later.
Also on the afternoon of April 12, Metropolitan Police officers surrounded the offices of the community television station Catia TV and blocked the entrance for two hours. During this time, no one was allowed to enter or leave.
Under Carmona, the state-run television station, Venezolana de Televisión, was taken off the air on the evening of April 11 after being occupied by police forces that had joined the coup. The station remained shuttered until April 13, when it was taken over by government supporters who brought it back on the air.
Globovisión, a 24-hour news channel, was attacked with a grenade. At around 1:10 a.m., unidentified individuals in a car launched a grenade above a wall and into the parking lot of a building that houses Globovisión offices. The explosion partially damaged seven vehicles and the building’s entrance, but no one was injured.
After gathering evidence and performing tests, the police confirmed that the explosion had resulted from a fragmentation grenade of the type used by the military, Globovisión said. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello called the action “a terrorist act” and promised to investigate the case.
The motive behind the attack remains unclear. Some opposition leaders blamed the government, which has often lashed out against the media, particularly Globovisión. Government officials, however, claimed that the incident was aimed at sabotaging an ongoing visit by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who had agreed to mediate in the political crisis engulfing Venezuela.
Gabriel Osorio, Primicia
Osorio, a photographer with the weekly Primicia, published by the company CA Editora El Nacional, which owns the daily El Nacional, was attacked in the capital, Caracas.
At around 3:30 p.m., as Osorio was heading toward the Supreme Court of Justice building after covering violent clashes between pro-government and opposition demonstrators, a group of government supporters began yelling at him, accusing the journalist of being a spy. The men surrounded Osorio, and when he identified himself as a journalist from El Nacional, they beat him up and threw him on the ground. After Osorio reached for a metal pipe to defend himself, the attackers left.
Noticing that his equipment had been stolen, Osorio went after the assailants to try to recover it. One of the attackers told Osorio that he would be shot if he did not leave. The journalist left the area with minor bruises and cuts. In addition, he lost his camera, a flash, lenses, film, and his cell phone.
In October, Osorio told CPJ that no one had been detained for the attack despite the fact that the Public Prosecutor’s Office had a video recording of the incident. Osorio added that the prosecutor had not contacted him in connection with the investigation.
Rossana Rodríguez, Globovisión
Felipe Lugo, Globovisión
Wilmer Escalona, Globovisión
Rodríguez, a TV reporter with the 24-hour news channel Globovisión; Lugo, a cameraman; and Escalona, an assistant, were attacked by government supporters while they were on their way to an assignment in the capital, Caracas. According to Globovisión, when the journalists drove by Urdaneta Avenue, near the Miraflores Presidential Palace, attackers surrounded their car, which was marked with the Globovisión logo, and beat Escalona, threatened him with a handgun, and forced him to hand over the car keys. Rodríguez was threatened with a broken bottle. The three were then forced out of the car, which the attackers took, along with a camera and a tripod.
Rodríguez took refuge nearby in the Vice President’s Office, where she contacted Globovisión. Meanwhile, Lugo and Escalona ran into Lina Ron, a leader of a pro-government organization, who agreed to help them and escorted them to a bridge where the news crew recovered their car and equipment. A videotape was not returned, however.
Later that day, municipal police detained Luis Cortez in connection with the attack. The next day, Cortez appeared in court, where Franco Arquímedes, the leader of a pro-government group, arrived, apologized for the incident, and accepted responsibility for the attack. Cortez was later released.
At around 12:00 a.m., unidentified attackers in a moving vehicle threw a small explosive device at the offices of the radio station Unión Radio, located in the eastern section of the capital, Caracas. The explosion caused minor material damage to the building and an adjacent house. The attack occurred two days before the opposition started a nationwide strike calling for President Hugo Chávez Frías’ resignation.
According to Unión Radio management, several of the station’s journalists have received threatening phone calls during the last three years because of their coverage, but it is unclear why the station was attacked. Authorities have opened an investigation into the bombing, but there had not been any progress by year’s end.
Héctor Castillo, El Mundo
Mauricio Muñoz Amaya, Associated Press Television News
Pedro Rey, Notitarde
Castillo, a photographer for the Caracas daily El Mundo, told CPJ that he was beaten at around 12 p.m. near the offices of the National Electoral Council while covering demonstrations during a nationwide strike.
After Castillo took a picture of a government supporter who was setting off fireworks, the man became angry and attempted to grab his camera. When Castillo resisted, 10 to 15 men surrounded him, threw him to the ground, and kicked him several times. The men also stole his lens and flash. Castillo was able to escape after Rey, a photographer for the daily Notitarde, and Desirée Santos Amaral, a parliamentary deputy for the ruling party, intervened. Castillo sustained injuries to his head and legs, went to a local hospital for treatment, and was released a few hours later. Rey told CPJ that, when he intervened to help Castillo, someone stole his flash and a gas mask he carried for protection.
Muñoz, an Associated Press Television News (APTN) cameraman from El Salvador, was hit with a 9 mm bullet in the chest at around 12:30 p.m. while he stood filming behind a row of riot police, APTN reporter Fernando Jáuregui told CPJ. Because Muñoz was wearing a bulletproof vest, he only suffered minor bleeding and a bruise in the chest. Muñoz was taken to local a hospital, where he stayed for three days. Muñoz then returned to Peru, where he lives. It is unclear whether he was targeted, or who fired the shot. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into the shooting, but no progress had been reported by year’s end.
Eduard Escalona, Venezolana de Televisión
Zaida Pereira, Venezolana de Televisión
Escalona, a cameraman for Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), and Pereira, a reporter for the channel, were attacked while trying to cover an opposition demonstration in Plaza Francia Square, in the Caracas neighborhood of Altamira. They were preparing to broadcast a report when journalist Arturo Vilar, who was working as press officer for a group of rebellious military officers, approached them. (In October, the officers had turned the Plaza Francia Square and the nearby Four Seasons Hotel into their base of operations.) Vilar then blocked Pereira and Escalona’s access to the area.
As Pereira protested and Escalona began filming, Vilar began beating Escalona. Other opposition supporters joined Vilar and took Escalona’s camera, which had recorded part of the assault. The camera was returned 30 minutes later without the tape and on the condition that Pereira and Escalona leave the scene. The journalists returned to VTV’s offices and gave an interview denouncing the attack.
Fernando Malavé, 2001
Rafael Fuenmayor, CMT
José Antonio Dávila, CMT
Luis Alfonso Fernández, Venevisión
Aymara Lorenzo, Globovisión
On the second day of a nationwide strike called by opponents of President Hugo Chávez Frías, National Guard troops attacked several journalists while they covered an opposition demonstration near the Caracas headquarters of the state oil company, PDVSA.
The security forces fired rubber bullets and threw tear gas grenades at journalists and other civilians. Malavé, a photographer with the Caracas daily 2001, was arguing with guards who were preventing him from taking photos when one guard shot him with a rubber bullet. Although he was wearing a bulletproof vest, Malavé suffered a serious wound to his ribs that required surgery at a local hospital.
In another attack, security forces kicked Fuenmayor, a reporter with the Caracas-based TV channel CMT. Dávila, a CMT technician, was hit with rubber bullets in the neck, face, and back after a guard shot him. He was treated in an ambulance parked nearby and returned to work immediately.
Troops also hit Fernández, a reporter with the Caracas-based TV channel Venevisión, with a blunt-edged sword and threw a tear gas grenade at him. Lorenzo, a reporter with the news channel Globovisión, was beaten as well.
National Guard generals and government officials justified their actions by claiming that the journalists had attacked National Guard troops, despite evidence that the opposite had occurred. On December 4, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the People’s Ombudsman Office publicly criticized the National Guard’s actions.
José Rodríguez, El Impulso
Clara Reverol, Televén
Martín Urteaga, El Informador
Julio Torres, Venevisión
Gustavo Escalona, Venevisión
Cristian Rodríguez, Promar TV
José Barreto, Promar TV
Yelina Torrealba, Telecentro
Miguel Ángel López, Telecentro
Erika Paz, RCTV
Samuel Sotomayor, RCTV
Several journalists were attacked by government supporters in the city of Barquisimeto, in northeastern Lara State. The journalists were covering an opposition protest when government supporters began throwing bottles and stones at the journalists and the protesters.
José Rodríguez, a photographer for the Barquisimeto daily El Impulso, was hit on the head with a sharp object and suffered from a concussion. Reverol, a reporter with the Caracas-based TV channel Televén, was hit on the forehead. Urteaga, a photographer for the Barquisimeto daily El Informador, was hit on the head. Torres and Escalona, two cameramen with the TV channel Venevisión, were also hit on the head. Cristian Rodríguez, a reporter for the Barquisimeto-based TV channel Promar TV, was kicked in the abdomen, while Barreto, her cameraman, had the lens of his camera smashed. Torrealba, a reporter for the Barquisimeto TV channel Telecentro, and López, his cameraman, were beaten. Paz, a reporter with the Caracas-based TV channel RCTV, was beaten, while Sotomayor, her cameraman, was beaten and had his camera kicked and destroyed.
According to local news reports, the police stood by during the incident.
Televisora Regional del Táchira
Venezolana de Televisión
A week after the beginning of a nationwide strike called by the opposition, several regional television stations were attacked by supporters of President Hugo Chávez Frías.
In the evening, scores of government supporters broke into the studios of the 24-hour news channel Globovisión in the city of Maracaibo, in northwestern Zulia State. They ransacked the offices, destroying or damaging furniture, computers, cameras, television monitors, and other audio and video equipment. According to Globovisión, a pro-government radio station had called on government supporters to occupy Globovisión’s facilities. The police arrived only after the attack was finished.
Government supporters twice attacked the offices of the television station TVS, in the city of Maracay, Aragua State, about an hour west of the capital, Caracas. They broke several windows but pulled back after the police arrived. Then, after the police left, government supporters returned and continued to ransack the facilities. The attackers also knocked down an antenna, taking the station off the air.
In the Andean Táchira State, government supporters partially destroyed the offices of the television station Televisora Regional del Táchira, spraying walls with graffiti, shattering glass windows, and destroying video equipment.
Also in the evening hours, unidentified attackers on motorcycles, presumably opposition supporters, fired several shots at the Caracas offices of the state-run television station Venezolana de Televisión. No one was injured.
Organization of American States secretary-general César Gaviria, who was in Caracas mediating talks between the opposition and the government, condemned all attacks against private and state-run media.