Court in Venezuela bans violent photos in newspapers

New York, August 18, 2010–A Venezuelan court’s decision to ban print media from publishing images of violence is an attempt to censor news coverage of widespread crime in the weeks leading up to the September 26 legislative elections, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

On Friday, the Caracas-based daily El Nacional published a front-page, archival photograph of corpses piled up in a local morgue as part of a news report on rising crime in Venezuela, local press reports said. On Monday, a Caracas court banned El Nacional, a harsh critic of the Venezuelan government, from publishing “images, information and publicity of any type that contains blood, guns, alarming messages, or physical aggression that could alter the psychological and moral well-being of children and adolescents,” according to the order reviewed by CPJ. The prohibition was in the form of a temporary injunction while the court makes a final decision in the case, the paper’s lawyer, Ramón José Medina, told CPJ.

Tal Cual, a Caracas daily that is also critical of the Venezuelan administration, ran El Nacional‘s morgue photograph on Monday in a show of solidarity. The republication sparked a complaint from the government ombudsman’s office and a second ruling by the Caracas court on Tuesday. This time, the court barred all Venezuelan print media from publishing violent images for one month.

The original case against El Nacional stemmed from complaints filed by two citizens who claimed the morgue photograph violated a Venezuelan law aimed at protecting children and teenagers. Some news accounts described the complainants as officials with a group sympathetic to the government.

Miguel Otero, editor of El Nacional, told CPJ the court orders are aimed at curtailing press coverage of crime before the September 26 legislative elections. “The crime rate has become a critical issue for the government. These rulings are a very convenient way to stop crime stories from going public,” Otero said. El Nacional will appeal the decision, Medina told CPJ.

“Journalists have the right to report aggressively on issues of public interest. We call on judicial authorities to overturn the decision on appeal,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “It is critical for Venezuelans, especially in the pre-electoral period, to be informed on issues of public interest such as violence and rising crime.”