Minister’s accusations may endanger journalists

New York, February 23, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that recent statements by Venezuela’s minister of information accusing British journalist Phil Gunson, as well as other foreign and local journalists, of working at the behest of the U.S. government may endanger their physical safety.

The accusations followed weeks of heightened tensions between the United States and Venezuela, including statements by President Hugo Chávez Frías saying that the U.S. government would be to blame for any assassination attempts against him.

Gunson told CPJ today that, “In a context in which journalists have been physically attacked for their supposed alignment with one political faction or the other, to be called a paid agent of imperialism represents an obvious security risk.”

In a Monday, February 21, press conference, Minister of Information and Communication Andrés Izarra accused the U.S. government of mounting a propaganda campaign via several U.S. and Venezuelan media outlets to isolate Venezuela, delegitimize its government, and destabilize the country in preparation for a U.S. invasion.

According to local press reports, Izarra said that more than 45 recent articles in the media were propaganda from the Bush administration, including Gunson’s work in The Miami Herald and pieces in the Caracas-based dailies El Universal and El Nacional.

Without offering any supporting evidence, Izarra said, “Don’t be surprised if in the future … we discover that Mr. Gunson and El Nacional are receiving funds from the U.S. government.” Izarra then said he wasn’t making a direct accusation, just a “presumption.”

Gunson called Izarra’s allegations baseless and said he has no ties to the U.S. government.

Gunson writes mainly for the U.S.-based daily The Miami Herald, the weekly Newsweek, and the U. K.-based weekly The Economist. Since 2003, he has been the president of the Foreign Press Association in Venezuela.

“We condemn Minister Izarra’s statements and urge Venezuelan authorities to refrain from issuing blanket accusations against journalists and the media,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “In Venezuela’s highly charged political environment, such language may endanger journalists and keep them from working safely.”