Pro-government group threatens Venezuelan media outlets

New York, February 9, 2009–In an interview published on Friday, the leader of the Venezuelan pro-government group La Piedrita took responsibility for a series of attacks against local journalists and media outlets, and threatened to attack the 24-hours news channel Globovisión and RCTV Director Marcel Granier. The Committee to Protect Journalists called today on Venezuelan authorities to investigate the allegations and to immediately bring those responsible for the attacks to justice.  

In its February 6 edition, the Venezuelan weekly Quinto Día published an extended interview with Valentín Santana, leader of La Piedrita, detailing the pro-government group’s political stand and its past actions. In the interview, Santana threatened to “take up arms” against Granier and Globovisión, accusing them of promoting violence against Venezuelan Pesident Hugo Chávez.

Granier issued a statement the same day calling on local authorities to detain Santana. Over the weekend, Chávez condemned Santana’s declarations and said La Piedrita’s actions could be defined as “terrorism,” according to Venezuelan news reports. According to El Universal, Chávez ordered Santana’s detention on Sunday; he has not yet been detained.

Valentín also took responsibility for several attacks with tear gas over the last five months: against the Caracas offices of Globovisión and the national daily El Nuevo País; Granier’s home; and the home of Marta Colomina, who hosts an opinion program on Unión Radio and is a columnist for the daily El Universal. Valentín said La Piedrita attacked the journalists and outlets in retaliation for their anti-Chávez stand.

“We commend President Chávez’s public condemnation of this group and its attacks on the Venezuelan media,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “We now call on him to translate those words into action by thoroughly investigating the shocking allegations made by Valentín Santana last week, and bringing all those responsible for the attacks to justice.”

On the morning of September 23, unidentified individuals tossed tear gas canisters outside Globovisión’s offices in Caracas. One canister went off, but no one was injured. The assailants left fliers, signed by La Piedrita, saying the network–declared a military target–would be held responsible if anything happened to Chávez, according to a transcript published in the national daily El Nacional. On October 14, two more tear gas canisters were tossed inside the El Nuevo País offices. The assailants also left leaflets signed by La Piedrita stating the daily’s director Rafael Poleo was considered a military target, reports in the Venezuelan press said. No one was injured in the attack.

On December 1, unidentified individuals threw similar pamphlets and several tear gas canisters in front of a Caracas apartment building where Colomina, a harsh critic of the Chávez administration lives, reports in the local press said. Colomina said the leaflets accused her of promoting Chávez’s murder, the local press reported. According to El Universal, a similar attack took place outside Garnier’s Caracas home on January 19. Granier told local reporters that his home had been previously attacked in December. No injuries resulted from any of the incidents.

Tension between Chávez supporters and his critics has been on the rise in the lead-up to a February 15 popular referendum in which Venezuelans will decide whether Chávez and other public officials will be able to run for indefinite reelection. On October 6, CPJ sent Chávez a letter expressing concern over recent violence and intimidation against the Venezuelan media.

In May 2007, RCTV, the country’s oldest private television, went off the air after the Venezuelan government made an unprecedented decision not to renew its broadcast concession. RCTV Internacional launched a paid subscription service via cable and satellite on July 16, 2007, which continues to offer critical programming.

Rising violence in the country is also affecting the Venezuelan press. Although deadly violence against the media is rare in Venezuela, according to CPJ research, one provincial journalist was killed while another was critically wounded this year. On January 16, an unidentified assailant shot Orel Sambrano, director of the local political weekly ABC de la Semana and Radio América, according to local news reports and CPJ interviews. Local journalists told CPJ they believed Sambrano was killed in retaliation for his reporting. Just three days before, assailants shot and wounded Rafael Finol, political editor of the daily El Regional as he was leaving the paper’s offices with several colleagues. Finol, who was recovering, told CPJ that he believed the attack was retaliation for El Regional‘s pro-government political reporting.