Intimidation, accusations should stop

Unfounded government accusations have fueled a climate of fear, CPJ says in a letter to President Hugo Chávez Frías. … 

October 6, 2008

Hugo Chávez Frías
President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Palacio de Miraflores
Caracas, Venezuela

Via facsimile: 58-212-864-6002

Dear Mr. President:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by recent violence and intimidation against the Venezuelan media. Unfounded government accusations of media coup-plotting have compounded the problem, fostering a climate of fear among journalists in the weeks prior to the November 28 regional elections.

It is critical that journalists be able to report freely on the problems facing Venezuela, including the rise of violent crime, the local impact of the global financial crisis, and official corruption. CPJ has documented two disturbing instances in which a television network and a journalist, both harsh critics of your government, were targeted in the last two weeks. In at least one of the cases, Venezuelan authorities failed to condemn the attack.

At 5:30 a.m. on September 23, a group of unidentified individuals in two vehicles tossed two tear gas canisters at the Caracas offices of the 24-hours news channel Globovisión, according to reports in the local and international press. One canister went off, but no one was injured. The assailants left fliers declaring Globovisión a military target, the local press said. The fliers, signed by the pro-government group La Piedrita, said the network would be held responsible if anything happens to you or if there is a coup attempt against your government, according to a transcript published in the national daily El Nacional.

Following the incident, Minister of Interior Tarek El Aissami said the attack was related to the broadcaster’s supposed involvement in a conspiracy to overthrow your government. Globovisión’s general director Alberto Federico Ravell denied the interior minister’s accusation. CPJ believes Minister El Aissami’s comments were reckless and without basis; the fact that he failed to condemn the attack leaves critical outlets vulnerable to the harassment of pro-government militants. 

On September 27, two unidentified individuals shot Eliécer Calzadilla, a columnist for the Ciudad Guayana-based daily Correo del Caroní, as he was getting into his car in a parking lot in southern Bolívar province, according to press reports. Calzadilla, who suffered a head injury, was taken to a local hospital where he received treatment. In an article published on September 28, Calzadilla, a tough government critic, said he did not believe the incident was a robbery.

CPJ is also alarmed by unsubstantiated statements made by you and high-ranking administration officials that accuse media owners of being part of a plot to oust and murder you. Since September 11, you have claimed that a group of radical opponents backed by the United States are plotting to assassinate you. Without providing any evidence, you, administration officials, and members of the National Assembly have claimed that Globovisión, El Nacional, and El Universal have participated in a plot to overthrow your government. The owners of these outlets and U.S. officials have denied any involvement in any such plot.

The accusations being made are very serious, and if there is factual evidence of a conspiracy the matter should be referred for legal action. But simply making public allegations without factual foundation is very dangerous because the 2002 coup remains such an emotionally charged issue for your supporters. We urge you to show greater tolerance toward criticism in the press and to halt unfounded accusations aimed at discrediting the news media.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your response.

Joel Simon
Executive Director