Attacks on the Press in 2008: Venezuela

Official intolerance of criticism and unfounded government accusations promoted a climate of fear among Venezuelan journalists. Tensions reached new heights in September when, without providing evidence, President Hugo Chávez Frías and high-ranking administration officials accused private media outlets of plotting to overthrow the government and murder the president. With violent crime rates escalating, the murder of a newspaper executive and the shooting of a critical columnist raised concern about journalists’ safety.

A year after Chávez’s unprecedented decision to withdraw the broadcastfrequency of the country’s oldest private television station, RCTV, the government continued its efforts to restrict critical coverage. In February, a group of legislators urged the attorney general’s office to investigate private television station Globovisión, alleging the broadcaster was engaged in a campaign to damage the president’s image. The legislators charged that Globovisión was trying to harm Chávez by broadcasting a speech in which the head of state talked about the benefits of chewing coca leaves. Deputy Juan Carlos Dugarte, from the official Movimiento Quinta República party, claimed the broadcaster was sending Venezuelans a subliminal message that the president was addicted to drugs. No investigation had been launched by late year.

Globovisión was the target of a violent attack in September, when a group of people tossed tear gas canisters at its offices. The assailants left fliers declaring the station a military target. The fliers, signed by the pro-government group La Piedrita, said the network would be held responsible if Chávez were harmed or a coup attempted, according to a transcript published in the national daily El Nacional. Minister of Interior and Justice Tarek El Aissami said the attack was related to the broadcaster’s supposed involvement in a conspiracy to oust Chávez from office; Globovisión General Director Alberto Federico Ravell denied such involvement.

By silencing critical voices and expanding the reach of state news media, the government was succeeding in its aggressive efforts to challenge the influence of private media, analysts told CPJ. Globovisión, a 24-hour news channel, remained the nation’s most critical broadcaster after RCTV was pulled off the public airwaves in May 2007. (RCTV continued to air on satellite and cable.) But Globovisión’s reach was limited—it aired only in metropolitan Caracas and the state of Carabobo. The private broadcasters with national reach, Televén and Venevisión, eased their criticism of the government, ridding themselves of their most controversial programs. Local journalists said the September decision by the National Telecommunications Commission to renew Televén’s broadcast license for five years reflected the station’s uncritical stance. The commission had renewed Venevisión’s license in May 2007, also for five years.

On September 11, Chávez accused a group of radical opponents—allegedly backed by the United States—of plotting to topple his government and assassinate him. The president made the assertion after a recording of a conversation between what were said to be retired military officers surfaced in the state-owned media. Chávez claimed the plotters sought to blow up the presidential plane or bomb Miraflores, the presidential palace. A few days later—without providing any evidence—Chávez, administration officials, and members of the National Assembly accused Globovisión and the two largest national dailies, El Nacional and El Universal, of being part of the plot.

The owners of these outlets and U.S. officials denied any involvement in a conspiracy. The government launched an investigation, and in late September, El Aissami announced the arrests of 12 suspects, including civilians and former military members. The National Assembly formed a special commission to investigate what role private media had in the plot after a complaint was filed by pro-government talk show host Mario Silva. After interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents, the assembly concluded in September that Globovisión, El Nacional, and El Universal had attempted to play down the president’s accusation through what they characterized as “banal” reporting, according to a report by the state news agency Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias. A more intensive investigation would follow, the legislative body said in a statement. In December, the legislative commission urged the attorney general to investigate an opposition leader, military officers, and media executives for allegedly participating in the plot.

Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of El Nacional, called the government’s accusations a “smokescreen” to obscure official corruption scandals and a spike in violent crime. CPJ sent Chávez a letter in October urging him to show greater tolerance toward criticism in the press and to halt accusations against the news media without factual foundations.

The government’s intolerance of criticism was reflected in the September expulsion of the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, and his deputy, Daniel Wilkinson, hours after the group issued a report slamming Venezuela’s human rights record. The Ministry of Foreign Relations said the activists had violated the country’s constitution and laws by attacking democratic institutions and interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Back in 2007, Chávez ordered officials to scrutinize statements by foreign public figures and deport any outspoken critics. Though Venezuela has not taken any action against foreign correspondents, the expulsion of human rights activists because of their criticism set an alarming precedent, according to veteran foreign correspondent Phil Gunson, who wrote for The Economist and The Miami Herald from Caracas.

A series of violent attacks, including the killing of a newspaper executive, fueled concern among journalists. On June 3, Pierre Fould Gerges, vice president of the Caracas daily Reporte Diario de la Economía, was shot to death by unidentified gunmen. Giselle Suárez, a lawyer for Reporte Diario de la Economía, told CPJ that several senior staff members had received telephone and e-mail death threats since June 2007. Investigators had not publicly cited a motive for the murder by late year. The newspaper’s editorial pages had been tough on government corruption.

On September 27, 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. Calzadilla was taken to a local hospital with a serious head injury. In an article published on September 28, Calzadilla, a harsh government critic, said he did not believe the attack was intended to be a robbery.

In an encouraging development in May, a former police officer was convicted in the 2006 murder of photographer Jorge Aguirre. Boris Blanco, a former officer in the Chacao municipality of Caracas, was given a 15-year prison sentence for killing Aguirre. Aguirre, 60, a photographer with the newspaper chain Cadena Capriles, which publishes the daily El Mundo, was photographing renovations to a Caracas stadium when he decided to cover a nearby anticrime demonstration on the afternoon of April 5, 2006. A motorcyclist, apparently angered by the actions of the driver of Aguirre’s company car, shot the photographer four times. As Aguirre lay dying on the street, he managed to take a photograph of the fleeing killer.

Local journalists and free press advocates were disappointed by the release in August of the man held as the mastermind in the 2004 murder of journalist Mauro Marcano. Prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to convict Ceferino García, who had been detained in August 2006 and deported from Trinidad and Tobago.

Marcano, a radio host and columnist, was shot dead by unidentified attackers on September 1, 2004, in the Monagas capital of Maturín. Marcano had hosted the daily radio show “De Frente con el Pueblo” (Facing the People) on Radio Maturín, and written the weekly column “Sin Bozal” (Without Muzzle) for the Maturín-based daily El Oriental. Marcano aggressively denounced drug trafficking and police corruption in the area. At the time of his murder, he was also a municipal councilman for the regional political movement.

Following regional elections in November in which opposition candidates won several key victories, Chávez announced he would seek constitutional changes allowing indefinite presidential re-election. Chávez, whose term expires in 2013, lost a similar effort to eliminate term limits in a 2007 referendum. During and after the November election, Chávez stepped up verbal attacks on political foes and the private news media in what analysts described as an attempt to clamp down on the opposition.

AMERICAS: Regional Analysis
Drug trade, violent gangs pose grave danger

AMERICAS: Country Summaries

Argentina Ecuador
Bolivia Guatemala
Brazil Mexico
Colombia United States
Cuba Venezuela
Other Attacks and Developments in the Region

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