Venezuelan judge issues gag order in high-profile murder case

New York, January 25, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Caracas judge’s decision on Monday to issue a gag order prohibiting news outlets from reporting on the investigation into the 2004 murder of prosecutor Danilo Anderson.

Judge Florencio Silano, acting at the request of Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez, barred the “publishing, spreading or exposition” of any information about the Anderson case. Among other things, Rodríguez said he wanted to protect the prosecution’s primary witness, Giovanny Vásquez de Armas, from what he called a media campaign of harassment and psychological pressure.

Local media have repeatedly questioned Vásquez’s credibility. Vásquez has been convicted of fraud in his native Colombia and some press accounts have accused of collaborating with the FARC, a Colombian left-winged guerrilla group. Local reports also claim Vásquez was jailed in 2003 when he allegedly attended a meeting in Panama where Anderson’s murder was planned.

Silano also directed the Public Ministry to investigate six television stations and four newspapers for alleged “obstruction of justice” by reporting on documents and witnesses related to the murder case, according to local reports. The obstruction charge is being investigated under the Law of Judicial Authority and the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, according to local reports. The “social responsibility” law, passed in 2004, has been widely criticized for falling short of international press freedom standards.

The investigation is aimed at four private TV stations— Televén, RCTV, Venevisión and Globovisión, the Caracas-based Canal Metropolitano, the state-owned Venezolana de Televisión (VTV)—as well as four daily newspapers—El Nacional, El Universal, Ultimas Noticias and El Nuevo País.

“This gag order is a shocking attack on press freedom and the right to information of all Venezuelan citizens,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We urge the prosecutor to withdraw his request, which actively suppresses these human rights.”

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 November 18, 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.