CPJ deplores attempt to censor media coverage of murder case

New York, January 20, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm today at an attempt by Venezuela’s attorney general to prevent media from reporting on the high-profile murder of prosecutor Danilo Anderson.

Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez said in a statement Wednesday he had asked a local court to ban media from covering the judicial proceedings of the Anderson case. The ban covered particular print media and television stations but Rodríguez’s office did not name them.

Rodríguez also asked the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission to open administrative proceedings against media outlets that have disclosed information from case documents, to determine whether they had violated the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. This law contains vaguely worded restrictions that severely limit freedom of expression. Under Article 29 television and radio stations that broadcast messages that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order” or “are contrary to the security of the nation” may be forced to suspend broadcasts for up to 72 hours.

“The action by the attorney general is a clear attempt at censoring the media and denying Venezuelans the right to be informed in a case of great public interest,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We urge the Venezuelan authorities to reconsider this decision and allow media to report freely.”

Rodríguez also accused some outlets of “intimidating witnesses and experts to persuade them to lie, modify their statements or abstain from testifying.” He said some outlets would be investigated on suspicion of obstructing justice, an offense that carries a prison sentence of six months to three years. Rodríguez accused unnamed media outlets of promoting a campaign to discredit the investigation.

Anderson was the prosecutor in charge of investigating the alleged involvement of several businessmen, politicians, and former government officials in an April 2002 coup that briefly deposed President Hugo Chávez Frías. Anderson was blown up in his car in Caracas on November18, 2004 in what some government officials termed a “terrorist act.”

In December 2004 and January 2005, the local press quoted a Caracas councilman as saying that police had found a large amount of money at Anderson’s apartment. The councilman, Carlos Herrera, alleged Anderson was linked to a ring of lawyers and prosecutors that sought money in exchange for halting investigations.

But Rodríguez said prosecutors were concentrating on three theories that indicated that Anderson had been killed in retaliation for his work as a prosecutor. Rodríguez accused the press of focusing on the extortion allegations to deflect attention from Anderson’s real killers.

Three men have been convicted of killing Anderson but prosecutors believe others planned the assassination. In November 2005, Venezuelan authorities ordered the detention of four people accused of orchestrating the murder, including journalist Patricia Poleo, a columnist and director of the Caracas daily El Nuevo País, who has supported the opposition in her work. Poleo has been in hiding for nearly three months. The government has said it will present evidence at trial and that the prosecution is not based on Poleo’s work as a journalist.

Although Rodríguez denied that this is an attempt to censor the media, Venezuelan journalists and press freedom advocates have said that the decision by the Attorney General’s Office contradicts international standards on freedom of expression.