Venezuelan information minister responds to CPJ

New York, March 30, 2005—Journalists in Venezuela have no reason to fear physical retaliation for their work, a senior government official said in a letter to the Committee to Protect Journalists, but he continued to suggest that some members of the press are spreading U.S. propaganda.

Andrés Izarra, the minister of information and communication, publicly accused foreign and local journalists in February of spreading U.S.-sponsored disinformation. At the time, CPJ condemned his statements—which were offered without evidence—and said the minister’s comments potentially endangered the safety of journalists.

In a written response to CPJ, dated March 19 and received in New York today, Izarra said attacks against local journalists have ceased and the environment for journalists has improved because President Hugo Chávez Frías issued public calls to respect reporters and photographers—and because opposition media had stopped insulting Chávez and his supporters. Izarra said no journalist in Venezuela runs any risk other than being criticized.

Izarra said he had not made blanket accusations against the media, but had criticized private television stations for broadcasting antigovernment advertising and correspondents for reporting what he called U.S. disinformation.

“It would be a unique case in modern history if the intelligence community wouldn’t have in Venezuela media and journalists to influence domestic and international public opinion, and it would be naïve to think the opposite,” he said in his letter to CPJ.

“We appreciate Minister Izarra’s response,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said today. “It’s very important to note that journalists have been attacked in the past for what was perceived as antigovernment coverage. We hope that Minister Izarra’s comments signal a change in that climate.”

Izarra sparked the exchange in a February press conference when he accused the U.S. government of using U.S. and Venezuelan media to mount a propaganda campaign designed to isolate and destabilize the country. Izarra labeled 45 recent press articles as Bush administration propaganda. In particular, he cited British journalist Phil Gunson, who has written for The Miami Herald, among other publications.

Gunson called Izarra’s allegations baseless—a point he reiterated when contacted by CPJ today.

Attacks against local journalists have decreased as political tension diminished following the August 2004 recall referendum won by Chávez. But a new broadcast media law could be used to restrict news coverage critical of the government, and recently enacted changes to the Penal Code broadened desacato (disrespect) provisions and drastically increased criminal penalties for defamation and slander.

Read Izarra’s letter.