Attacks on the Press 2009: Venezuela

Top Developments
• Regulators strip licenses from critical broadcasters.
• Government wages politicized investigation into Globovisión.

Key Statistic
34: Private radio and television stations pulled from the air.

After scoring a major victory in a February referendum that granted indefinite presidential re-election, President Hugo Chávez Frías and his government intensified their years-long crackdown on the private media. The government’s regulatory body took unprecedented steps to target critical broadcasters. Arbitrary decisions stripped private radio stations of their licenses, while a series of investigations threatened to shut down Venezuela’s remaining critical television broadcaster, Globovisión. In the country’s interior, an outspoken government critic was jailed, and an investigative reporter was slain in direct reprisal for his work.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In the Americas,
Big Brother is watching reporters

Country Summaries
United States
Other developments

Assailed by Chávez as an instrument of the oligarchy engaged in “media terrorism,” Globovisión was the target of a barrage of investigations. In September, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) opened an administrative probe after accusing the network of inciting rebellion for airing a viewer’s text message calling for a coup. In July, CONATEL began an inquiry into allegations that Globovisión was airing messages that could create “anguish, anxiety, and fear.” The broadcaster had run an advertising campaign defending private property (at a time when the administration was nationalizing major industries, including telecommunications, electricity, and some food production). Yet another inquiry was opened in May, on charges of “inciting panic and anxiety in the population,” after Globovisión reported on an earthquake that shook Caracas. During the broadcast, Globovisión Director Alberto Federico Ravell urged viewers to remain calm and accused authorities of failing to inform Venezuelans in a timely way, according to international news reports. The broadcaster, known for its strident antigovernment views, also had two pending investigations from 2008. A sanction in any one case could mean suspension of up to 72 hours; a second sanction could result in the revocation of the broadcaster’s license.

The government threatened to take other steps. In June, just hours after Chávez warned Globovisión to cease its critical coverage or face closure, CONATEL requested that the Attorney General’s office investigate whether the private broadcaster was criminally liable for violations of the telecommunications law. CPJ called it a “serious escalation” in tactics. No criminal investigation had been started by late year. 

Globovisión was also victim of a violent attack in August, when a group of more than 30 armed individuals on motorcycles stormed its Caracas offices, set off tear gas canisters, and injured a local police officer and two employees. According to video footage later aired by the broadcaster, the assailants were members of the pro-Chávez political party Unión Patriótica Venezolana (UPV). Authorities arrested UPV leader Lina Ron days later and charged her with “conspiring to commit a crime,” according to a statement from Minister of Interior and Justice Tarek El Aissami. Ron, released in October, was being tried in late year.

CONATEL used the regulation of broadcast licenses as pretext to silence independent and critical voices, pulling 32 privately owned radio stations and two TV stations off the public airwaves in early August. The broadcasters, CONATEL alleged, had failed to update their registration papers by a June deadline. According to the regulator, the stations were operating illegally because their licenses had been granted to “natural persons,” while the 2000 Law on Telecommunications required they be turned over to “legal persons.” The broadcasters appealed, and many presented evidence that they had filed documents to conform to the change. They remained off the air in late year. 

The regulator had threatened earlier to revoke as many as 154 FM and 86 AM radio licenses. In a July letter, CPJ urged Minister of Public Works and Housing Diosdado Cabello to ensure that broadcast licensing be conducted in an unbiased and transparent manner.

The Chávez administration moved aggressively to curtail media freedom by introducing restrictive legislation. In July, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz submitted a bill that would punish “press crimes” with prison terms. The goal, she said, was to confront “new forms of criminality created by the abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion.” The initiative defined “press crimes” as actions that threaten the “social peace, the security, and independence of the nation, the stability of state institutions, mental health or public ethics, and actions that cause a state of impunity.” The measure vaguely said it would “prevent and punish actions or omissions displayed through the media that constitute a crime,” and would sanction “any person who releases false news in the media that causes serious public disorder, fear and anxiety among the population, or damages to state institutions.” After an international outcry, the bill was shelved by the National Assembly in August. (In January 2005, the National Assembly drastically increased criminal penalties for defamation while expanding the number of government officials protected by defamation provisions.)

The legislature approved an education bill with provisions prohibiting the distribution of material that could incite “hate, aggressiveness,”  “unruliness,” or cause “terror in children.” After the bill’s approval on August 13, a dozen journalists from the Caracas-based dailies Ultimas Noticias, El Mundo, and Radio Líder—owned by the private media conglomerate Cadena Capriles—staged a street protest against provisions they believed hindered free expression. That same afternoon they were struck and kicked by people the journalists identified as state employees who accused them of being “oligarchs” and “enemies of the people,” according to CPJ interviews. No one was seriously injured, but the episode stayed in the spotlight when Chávez accused the Cadena Capriles reporters of provoking the attack. On August 15, authorities arrested Gabriel Uzcátegui, an employee of the state-owned broadcaster Ávila TV, in connection with the assault. The station denied involvement and questioned the veracity of the reported victims. Uzcátegui had not been charged by late year.

Journalists covering protests were systematically harassed and attacked. In January, protesters beat Rafael Garanton, a photographer for the daily El Carabobeño, in Carabobo province while covering a student protest over insecurity in the streets, according to the regional press freedom group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad. The journalist, whose camera was stolen by protesters, was taken to a hospital with minor injuries. Instituto Prensa y Sociedad documented other cases: José Gonzáles, a photographer for the daily El Mundo Oriental, was attacked in February by members of Venezuela’s National Guard while photographing a public transportation drivers’ protest in Anzoátegui. In April, a photojournalist for the Mérida-based daily Pico Bolívar, Héctor Molina, was threatened by hooded protesters when covering a student demonstration. In July, National Guard officers held Zulia López and Jesús Molina, a reporter and cameraman for the broadcaster RCTV Internacional, and Thais Jaimez, a reporter for the daily Panorama, after they attempted to cover a construction workers protest in Táchira province.

In July, a Táchira judge ordered the arrest of Gustavo Azócar, an outspoken critic of Chávez and correspondent for the national daily El Universal, TV host, and blogger. The judge found that Azócar, accused of financial crimes in a years-old case concerning an advertising contract, had violated a pretrial order not to comment publicly on the case. Azócar told CPJ he republished on his blog some pieces from other media outlets about the case, but had not written about the case himself. Azócar’s lawyer and colleagues told CPJ the journalist was being punished for his critical commentary on local government officials.

Escalating overall violence raised alarm, especially in the country’s interior. In January, unidentified individuals shot and injured Rafael Finol, the political editor for the daily El Regional, outside the paper’s offices in southwestern Acarigua. The journalist told CPJ he believed the attack was in retaliation for the paper’s political reporting, which supports the Chávez administration. Finol told CPJ that investigators believed hired assassins had been involved in the attack.

Also that month, an unidentified individual shot and killed Orel Sambrano, director of the local political weekly ABC de la Semana and Radio América, in the western city of Valencia. Sambrano, 62, was known locally for his investigations and commentary on local politics. Colleagues told CPJ that he had recently published a number of investigative pieces on the family of local businessman Walid Makled. Press reports said that Sambrano had also named Rafael Segundo Pérez, a Carabobo police sergeant, as one of 13 local officers with ties to the Makled clan. On February 13, authorities arrested Pérez and accused him of working as a hired assassin and conspiring to commit a crime. Local news reports said authorities also issued an arrest warrant for Makled, whose family denied the accusations. Makled was believed to have left the country, news reports said. Deadly violence against the press is rare in Venezuela, according to CPJ research. Five journalists, including Sambrano, have been killed in relation to their work since 1992.

One of Venezuela’s most strident critics, Rafael Poleo, editor and publisher of the daily El Nuevo País and the newsmagazine Zeta, fled the country in September after he was summoned by authorities in connection with a 2008 appearance on Globovisión, during which Poleo said Chávez “could end up like Mussolini.” Poleo, who is living in exile in Miami, has said the government is looking to put him behind bars as part of its campaign against opponents, according to local news reports.