Venezuelan Azócar convicted on retaliatory charges

New York, March 30, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces the conviction of Venezuelan journalist Gustavo Azócar on trumped-up financial crime charges. Azócar, an outspoken critic of the Venezuelan administration, had been jailed since July 2009 and barred from speaking publicly about the case.

Judge José Hernán Oliveros, ruling Friday in a trial court in the western state of Táchira, found Azócar guilty of fraud in the handling of a 2000 advertising contract between the state lottery and Radio Noticias 1060, a private radio station that employed the journalist at the time, according to Venezuelan press reports. Oliveros handed down a prison term of two and a half years, but released the journalist on parole. He ordered Azócar to appear before judicial officials every eight days, local press reports said.

Azócar, host of “Café con Azócar,” a news and political commentary show on Táchira-based Televisora del Táchira, said he will appeal.

Azócar had been in custody since last July, when he was arrested for allegedly violating a pretrial gag order by posting information about the case on his blog. Azócar has told CPJ that he republished news reports about the case, but had not written about it himself.

Azócar’s colleagues told CPJ that the journalist was being punished for his critical commentary on local government officials. CPJ has documented a pattern of judicial harassment against Azócar based in his critical views. Azócar was included in CPJ’s 2009 survey of journalists imprisoned for their work.

“We condemn Azócar’s conviction as an attempt by Venezuelan officials to punish critics and stifle dissent,”said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator. “We urge Venezuelan judicial authorities to overturn the conviction on appeal and to ensure that the press can report the news without fear of persecution, which is vital in the run-up to elections this year.”

The verdict also disqualifies Azócar from running for public office, press reports said. Azócar, who has been active in Venezuela’s opposition movement and has previously run for office, had expressed interest in running for the National Assembly in September, according to Venezuelan press reports.

In its annual report, Attacks on the Press, CPJ found that President Hugo Chávez Frías and his government have intensified their years-long crackdown on the private media. Last week’s arrest of Guillermo Zuloaga, president of Globovisión, a harshly critical private television station, illustrates the administration’s strategy of silencing critics and controlling the flow of information.

Zuloaga, who was detained on March 25 and released a few hours later, was accused of spreading false news and offending Chávez in remarks made during a meeting of the Inter American Press Association on March 21. He has been barred from leaving Venezuela and, if convicted, could be sentenced to five years in jail under archaic provisions of the country’s penal code. Globovisión has been the target of a barrage of government investigations, CPJ research shows.