Elected autocrats a danger to press-rights group

Michelle Nichols
Reuters News
February 5, 2007

NEW YORK, Feb 4 (Reuters) – The rise of popularly elected “democratators” in Venezuela and Russia is an alarming new model for government control of the press, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists warned on Sunday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez embody a generation of sophisticated, elected leaders who use laws to control, intimidate and censor the media, said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

He said in November Chavez accused news broadcasters of attempting to “divide, weaken and destroy the nation” and threatened to pull their licenses, while in Russia in July Putin signed a measure that “equates journalism with terrorism.”

“The democratators tolerate the facade of democracy — a free press, opposition political parties, an independent judiciary — while gutting it from within,” Simon said in CPJ’s “Attacks on the Press in 2006” report, will be published on Monday.

The report details the committee’s previously released statistics that show 55 journalists were killed around the world as a direct result of their work in 2006, while a record 134 journalists were in jail on Dec. 1 in 24 countries.

Simon said that while press freedom and human rights had been somewhat advanced by repressive governments being compelled to present themselves as democracies to gain international legitimacy, the techniques of democratators could not be underestimated.

“Leaders who jail journalists sometimes argue that they are complying with international law and are respectful of due process,” Simon said. “Other nations take a revolving door approach, imprisoning journalists and releasing them before an international outcry.”

He said some countries use government advertising to reward supportive news outlets and punish critical ones, such as in Argentina, where an independent research group told CPJ that advertising practices had damaged press freedom.

“Certainly there are countries that still rely on brute force; Cuba and Eritrea, where dozens of journalists are imprisoned, are among them,” Simon said.

He said that since Putin took power in Russia in 2000, 13 journalists had been killed and none of their killers brought to justice — a record that “causes reporters to ask fewer questions, to probe less deeply, to pass up risky stories.”

© 2007. Reuters Limited