Attacks on the Press 2005: Venezuela


CPJ traced a decline in physical attacks against journalists in 2005,
as five years of violent political upheaval finally subsided. President Hugo Chávez Frías further consolidated his control following a tumultuous recall vote the previous year that saw journalists assaulted and harassed by government supporters, opposition activists, and security forces. In 2005, the frequency of physical assaults declined by half, and the severity of the assaults diminished as well, CPJ data show. But one type of threat was replaced by another, as the Chávez administration moved toward institutionalized repression and new legal restraints against the press.

Two restrictive new legal measures—one expanding desacato (disrespect) provisions, the other setting “social responsibility” constraints on radio and television—went into effect during the year. These new measures could be used to silence government opponents and create a climate of self-censorship, according to CPJ’s analysis.

Pro-government legislators gave final approval in January to a bill overhauling the penal code. The changes expanded the categories of government officials protected by desacato provisions, which criminalize expressions deemed offensive to public officials and state institutions, and drastically increased criminal penalties for defamation and slander. The maximum prison term for defamation, for example, went from 30 months to 48 months under the measure. Chávez signed the provisions affecting the press, and they went into effect on March 16. CPJ’s analysis shows that the changes were approved hastily, with the intention of quelling dissent and criticism.

Also taking effect were parts of the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which was approved by the National Assembly and signed into law by Chávez in December 2004. The measure, backed by pro-government legislators, contains vaguely worded restrictions that severely limit 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 forced to suspend broadcasts 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 forbids “graphic descriptions or images of real violence” on the air from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., except when the broadcast is live and the content is either “indispensable” or emerges unexpectedly.

Private television stations have altered programming to comply with the “social responsibility” law. Elsy Barroeta, news director of the 24-hour news channel Globovisión, told CPJ that the station had not restricted coverage, but she acknowledged that some colleagues were concerned about self-censorship. Barroeta said that images of violence during street protests could be aired live but could not be repeated throughout the day, according to the new guidelines. The Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), a regional press freedom organization, found that three prominent television stations—Venevisión, Televén, and Radio Caracas Televisión—dropped half of their opinion programs since late 2004.

Venezuelan government officials continued to be intolerant of critical news coverage in the foreign and local press. At a February press conference, then–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 and destabilize it in preparation for a U.S. invasion. Izarra alleged that more than 45 news articles were Bush administration propaganda, including stories in the Caracas-based dailies El Universal and El Nacional and articles written by British journalist Phil Gunson in The Miami Herald. The government was particularly upset when Gunson wrote that Venezuela was acquiring new weapons and developing a defense doctrine centered on resisting a possible U.S. invasion.

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.” Gunson and El Nacional said the comment had no basis in fact, and Izarra later termed his accusation a “presumption.” His comment followed weeks of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments, including statements by Chávez saying the U.S. government would be to blame for any assassination attempts against him.

Gunson told CPJ 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.” CPJ condemned Izarra’s statement and said that it endangered the safety of journalists. Izarra responded that journalists in Venezuela had no reason to fear physical retaliation for their work, but he continued to suggest that some journalists were spreading U.S. government propaganda.

In July, the attorney general’s office invoked desacato provisions to investigate a local newspaper. Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez Díaz ordered a criminal investigation of El Universal after it published an editorial on July 25 criticizing his office and the judiciary. The front-page editorial, headlined “Justicia arrodillada” (Justice on Its Knees), said that the criminal justice system had become politicized, had lost its autonomy, and had grown ineffective. As a result, the editorial argued, the attorney general’s office and Venezuelan courts were losing their legitimacy. By August, the attorney general’s office said it planned to drop the investigation because, as an institution, it was not covered by the desacato provisions.

Provincial journalists faced retaliation by drug traffickers, death squads, and corrupt members of the security forces. In states bordering Colombia, journalists also encountered illegal armed groups and hired assassins.

The repercussions of a 2004 slaying were felt throughout the year. Mauro Marcano, a radio host and columnist, was killed in September 2004 by unidentified gunmen in the city of Maturín, in the eastern state of Monagas. Marcano, who was also a municipal councilman, had aggressively denounced drug trafficking and police corruption.

Marcano’s relatives told CPJ they had received threats after a March 2005 press conference in which they denounced the lack of progress made in the murder investigation. A special legislative committee looking into the murder issued a report three months later, recommending the replacement of several police investigators and prosecutors assigned to the murder probe, and urging police protection for Marcano’s family.

In the fall, prosecutors told CPJ that they had concluded the investigation and were ready to file preliminary charges against several suspects in the Marcano murder. They declined to comment on the motive. CPJ continues to monitor the case to determine whether Marcano was killed for his journalistic work.

Government officials and pro-government politicians filed criminal defamation lawsuits against at least four journalists during the year. And at least two journalists received citations from prosecutors that demanded they answer questions about leaks in high-profile criminal investigations.