Several worrying legal developments in Venezuela curtailed press freedom in 2004. In particular, a new broadcast media law could be used to restrict news coverage critical of the government.
Conflict between President Hugo Chávez Frías and the private media continued in 2004. Soon after Chávez was elected in 1998 on promises of a “democratic revolution” and radical reform, the press aligned itself with the opposition, whose vision for the future of Venezuela severely conflicted with Chávez’s. Because many opposition parties were disorganized or discredited, the media helped fill the void and became one of the most powerful sources of government opposition. Chávez has often blasted the private press and accused media owners of being “coup-plotters,” “fascists,” and “terrorists.” He has also threatened to shut down private TV channels’ broadcasts, and his government has used state-owned media as a counterweight to private media. Private media, meanwhile, have often openly promoted the agenda of opposition parties.
Government intolerance of both international and domestic criticism persisted. Officials accused the Washington, D.C.–based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), its Executive Secretary Santiago A. Canton, and the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Eduardo Bertoni of bias and prejudice against the Venezuelan government. In his radio and TV call-in program, “Aló, Presidente” (Hello, President), Chávez accused Venezuelan human rights organizations of receiving U.S. government funds to conspire against his government.
Journalists were attacked throughout 2004, but the most serious incidents occurred in early June, while Venezuelans waited for the Electoral National Council to verify signatures that eventually triggered a referendum on Chávez’s rule, which the president won. Government supporters attacked two media outlets in Caracas.
The attackers threw stones and other objects at the offices of Radio Caracas Televisión and crashed a stolen truck into its entrance and set it on fire. When National Guard troops arrived minutes later, the attackers left. Two hours later, about 20 people threw bottles and stones at the building housing the daily El Nacional (The National) and burned a newspaper truck. They then rammed a truck into the gates of the building’s parking lot and ransacked the adjacent administrative offices of the tabloid Así es la Noticia (That Is the News), which is owned by El Nacional‘s publishing company, damaging computers, furniture, and windows. They dispersed at around 5 p.m., when National Guard troops came and restored order.
Claiming that the Venezuelan government had failed to protect the safety and the right to freedom of expression of the two newspapers’ employees, in June the IACHR requested that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights intervene. In July, the Inter-American Court issued a resolution asking Venezuelan authorities to guarantee the safety of the newspapers’ staff and their right to freedom of expression.
On December 7, the National Assembly formally approved the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which was immediately signed into law by Chávez and went into effect two days later. A controversial law drafted by the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), it was introduced in January 2003 before the National Assembly by pro-government legislators who said the legislation was needed to “establish the social responsibility” of TV and radio broadcasters.
Although legislators stripped the law of some of its most onerous provisions in 2003, it contains vaguely worded restrictions that could hamper freedom of expression. Under Article 29, for instance, television and radio stations that disseminate messages that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order” or “are contrary to the security of the Nation” may be suspended for up to 72 hours. If a media outlet repeats the infractions within the next five years, its broadcasting concession may be suspended for up to five years.
Article 7 of the law allows broadcasting “graphic descriptions or images of real
violence” from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. only if the broadcast is live and the content is “indispensable” for understanding the information or is aired as a consequence of unforeseen events. Local TV channels refrained from airing footage of violent riots that occurred in Caracas in early December for fear of violating the law.
Also in December, pro-government legislators approved reforms to more than
30 articles in the Penal Code. The amended articles broadened the categories of government officials who may invoke so-called desacato (disrespect) provisions, which criminalize expressions that are offensive to public officials and state institutions, and drastically increased criminal penalties for defamation and slander. CPJ believes that the reforms are intended to punish dissent and were approved hastily, ignoring other efforts to reform the Penal Code that were already under discussion in the National Assembly.
In early September, Mauro Marcano, a radio host and columnist, was shot dead by unidentified attackers in the city of Maturín, the capital of eastern Monagas State. At the time of his murder, he was also a municipal councilman and had long been involved in politics. According to journalists, Marcano aggressively denounced drug trafficking and police corruption, and in the past police had captured drug traffickers based on his reporting. In late September, the National Assembly established a special legislative committee to investigate Marcano’s murder. CPJ continues to monitor the case to determine if Marcano was killed for his journalistic work.
In March, military prosecutors charged journalist Patricia Poleo with inciting rebellion and defaming the Venezuelan armed forces after she showed a video that allegedly revealed the presence of Cubans at a Venezuelan military base. The opposition has alleged that the Cuban government helps indoctrinate Venezuelans, which Venezuelan officials have repeatedly denied. In November, Poleo announced that prosecutors had dropped the case against her.
Also in November, military prosecutors charged columnist Manuel Isidro Molina with defaming the armed forces for writing that a retired air force colonel who disappeared had been beaten and killed at military intelligence facilities. When it turned out that the retired officer was alive, Molina acknowledged his error and published a correction. His lawyers have requested that his case be transferred to a civilian court.