Attacks on the Press 2006: Venezuela


President Hugo Chávez Frías, who has outlasted a coup and a recall, swept
to victory in the December 3 presidential election amid tense relations with the press. Chávez threatened to withhold licenses from broadcast outlets critical of his administration, while the attorney general quashed coverage of a prosecutor’s assassination amid press reports that exposed weaknesses in the government’s probe. Journalists faced physical dangers as well, with one murdered in 2006.

Chávez suffered a setback on the international stage in October, when Venezuela could not secure two-thirds approval in the U.N. General Assembly to gain a seat on the Security Council. Most analysts attributed the setback to Chávez’s fiery address to the assembly in which he called U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil.” But at home, the architect of Venezuela’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” has continued to tighten his grip on power by packing supporters onto an enlarged Supreme Court and by purging the armed forces and the state-owned oil company of personnel who were not supporters. In June, the National Assembly gave initial approval to a bill empowering the executive branch to regulate nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, including press freedom and human rights groups. The bill would also require such groups to register with the government. A coalition of local NGOs opposed the measure, fearing punitive action from an administration that construes criticism as an attempt to destabilize the country. The bill awaited final approval in the National Assembly, after which Chávez was expected to sign it into law.

To counter the largely pro-opposition private press at home, the Chávez administration used state-owned media as a government megaphone, stacking its personnel ranks with government sympathizers and influencing content to ensure that Chávez received vast amounts of uncritical coverage. Authorities sought to marginalize the private press by blocking access to government-sponsored events, government buildings, and public institutions; by refusing to give statements to reporters working for private media; and by withholding access to public information.

In June, Chávez threatened to block the license renewals of privately owned television and radio stations. Without naming any specific broadcasters, Chávez said some outlets were waging “psychological war to divide, weaken, and destroy the nation” as part of an “imperialist plan” to overthrow his government. Days later, the minister of communication and information said the government was legally entitled to refuse license renewals for stations it deemed in violation of the law. Minister Willian Rafael Lara said broadcasters had demonstrated “a systematic tendency to violate” the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. The Caracas daily El Universal quoted Lara as saying there was a good possibility that some licenses would not be renewed in 2007.

The social responsibility law, passed in 2004, has been widely criticized for its broad and vaguely worded restrictions on free expression. Article 29, for example, bars television and radio stations from broadcasting messages that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order” or “are contrary to the security of the nation.”

Many private media outlets have taken an openly partisan role, actively seeking Chávez’s ouster, embracing the positions and language of his opponents, and giving away time for opposition advertising. But private media recently have shown some signs of moving away from a fiercely partisan approach, promoting greater balance on opinion pages and investing more in hard-news reporting. The Caracas daily El Nacional, for instance, opened its op-ed pages to pro-government columnists and writers considered nonpartisan.

Most notably, several news organizations published investigative reports that pointed to deep flaws in the government’s probe of the November 2004 assassination of prosecutor Danilo Anderson. The reports questioned the credibility of the government’s primary witness, Giovanny Vásquez de Armas, revealing that he was actually in a Colombian jail when he purportedly attended a 2003 meeting in Panama where Anderson’s murder was allegedly planned.

Anderson had been investigating the alleged involvement of businessmen, politicians, and former government officials in the April 2002 coup that briefly deposed Chávez. When Anderson was killed in a car bombing in Caracas, government officials called it a “terrorist act” and eulogized the prosecutor as a hero who died while trying to bring coup plotters to justice. But the local press, citing witness statements, later reported that police found a large amount of money in Anderson’s apartment and that investigators were examining his possible connection to an extortion ring of lawyers and prosecutors.

Although three men were convicted of killing Anderson, prosecutors long believed that others planned the assassination. In November 2005, Venezuelan authorities issued arrest warrants for five people accused of orchestrating the murder—including Patricia Poleo, a columnist and director of the Caracas daily El Nuevo País. Poleo, who has supported the opposition in her writing, denied any involvement in the murder and called the prosecution politically motivated. She fled to Miami but said she would return if her right to a defense was guaranteed.

Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez reacted aggressively to news reports that raised questions about the government’s case. In January, he obtained a court order banning the media from reporting on broad aspects of the Anderson slaying. Judge Florencio Silano’s order barred “publishing, spreading, or exposition” of information from the Anderson court file, and he forbade any reference to the private life of the primary witness, Vásquez. The attorney general had said he wanted to protect Vásquez from what he called a media campaign of harassment and psychological pressure.

The same month, Rodríguez asked the National Telecommunications Commission, known as Conatel, to open administrative proceedings against broadcast outlets to determine whether they had violated the social responsibility law in their coverage of the case. In particular, he asked whether they violated Articles 1 and 3 by failing to exercise freedom of expression “with responsibility” and by failing to “promote balance between the duties, rights, and interests of people and those of broadcasting outlets and related parties.” The commission opened an investigation but took no immediate action.

At the time, Rodríguez accused unnamed news organizations of “intimidating witnesses and experts to persuade them to lie, modify their statements, or abstain from testifying,” and said they would be investigated on suspicion of obstructing justice. Within days, his office said it would investigate the private TV channels Televén, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión, CMT, and the state-owned Venezolana de Televisión; and the Caracas dailies El Universal, El Nacional, & Últimas Noticias, and El Nuevo País.

By August, though, the star witness had begun giving interviews to the local news media, prompting the judge to partially lift his gag order and allow the publication of references to Vásquez’s private life. That month, the attorney general acknowledged in an interview with El Nacional that Vásquez’s testimony was filled with inconsistencies and gaps, including those reported by the news media.

In December, the government’s case in tatters, Rodríguez announced that he would not press charges against one supposed mastermind and that he would temporarily shelve the investigation into the others.

One journalist was murdered in connection with his work in 2006. Jorge Aguirre, a photographer with the Caracas daily El Mundo, was shot on April 5 as he approached an anticrime demonstration in a car provided by El Mundo and marked with its logo. As the car neared the protest, a man driving a motorcycle approached and demanded that the driver stop the car. When the driver asked why, the motorcyclist responded that he was with the authorities, but he did not show any identification. After the driver refused to stop and proceeded to the protest scene, the motorcyclist followed and shot Aguirre four times as he was getting out of the car with his camera. Aguirre managed to take a picture of the killer’s back as he fled the scene on his motorcycle.

Boris Lenis Blanco, a former police officer, was arrested in the killing on April 13. Members of the national crime police apprehended Blanco when a former colleague identified him as the motorcyclist, El Universal reported. Investigators later searched Blanco’s home and found evidence connecting him to the crime scene, the local press said. Blanco was charged with murder and impersonation of a public official. Trial proceedings began in Caracas in June.

CPJ continued to investigate the murder of a second journalist. Jesús Rafael Flores Rojas, a columnist and coordinator for the daily Región in the state of Anzoátegui, was shot in front of his house on August 23. As Flores and his daughter Nancy were parking their car, an armed man approached. The daughter said she implored the attacker to take their car and money, but the man told her that he wasn’t there for either and shot Flores repeatedly.

Investigators reported a breakthrough in the 2004 murder of Mauro Marcano, a radio host and columnist who was killed in the city of Maturín, Monagas state. Marcano, who was also a municipal councilman, aggressively denounced drug trafficking and police corruption. In August 2006, two men accused of planning Marcano’s murder—an alleged drug trafficker and his son—were detained in neighboring Trinidad and Tobago and were awaiting extradition. The alleged middleman and two hit men were considered fugitives.