CPJ speaks to jailed Venezuelan journalist Gustavo Azócar

On Monday, Venezuelan Judge José Oliveros announced that he would begin a new trial against journalist Gustavo Azócar, an outspoken Chávez critic, who has spent two months in prison without being sentenced. Oliveros, the local press reported, also upheld a decision to hold the television host and blogger in custody throughout the new trial. The news prompted press freedom advocates to express concern that the measure is intended to silence Azócar. CPJ spoke to him from prison today.

Azócar is the host of a news and political commentary show on the Táchira-based TV station Televisora del Táchira, a correspondent for the national daily El Universal in the western city of San Cristóbal, and the author of the blog Gustavoazocar. He is accused of irregularities in the assignment of a 2000 advertising contract.

According to the journalist, Oliveros was assigned to his case on September 16, following the unexplained dismissal of Judge Fanny Yasmina Becerra in late August. Becerra, who had overseen the case since May, preceded over 28 hearings. She only had one more witness to interview before handing down a sentence, Azócar told CPJ. Oliveros, however, decided to start the trial from scratch, and to keep the journalist in prison. Azócar said the judge did not explain his decision, and that he could remain imprisoned for at least six more months.

The journalist is currently being held in the Central Penitentiary of the West in the Andean Tachirá province, along with other 2,120 inmates. He said he is in good health, and told CPJ that over the last two months, prison authorities and other prisoners have treated him well. According to Azócar, two local journalists are in charge of his TV program and a handful of local journalism students have kept up his blog.

This week, press freedom advocates said the decision to restart the trial was clearly a means to put an end to the journalist’s continuous criticism of Venezuelan and Táchira authorities. Azócar’s colleagues have continued to report on the case against him on the journalist’s television program and blog. And recently, a group of local journalism students went on a weeks-long hunger strike to protest Azócar’s imprisonment, according to local news reports.

In 2006, the Táchira state prosecutor accused Azócar of irregularities in the assignment of advertising in a contract signed with the state lottery in 2000, while Azócar was working for Radio Noticias 1060, a private radio station. On March 6, 2006, police arrested him minutes after he finished his daily TV show, arguing that the journalist had failed to appear before a local court every 30 days as ordered. He said he appeared as required. Jesús Vivas Terán, Azócar’s lawyer, told CPJ then that the local government was using the fraud allegations to silence his client’s criticism of local authorities.

Azócar was released 10 days later on parole and allowed to continue to work but not to leave the country or speak publicly about the legal process against him. In July 2009, however, Becerra issued an arrest warrant for Azócar, stating that he violated these conditions by blogging about the case. Azócar told CPJ today that the only information related to the trial that had been posted to his blog were reports published by the Venezuelan media.