Attacks on the Press 2010: Venezuela

Top Developments
• Censorship spikes: RCTV banished again, newspapers barred from using crime images.
• New laws restrict Internet content, tighten control over broadcast licenses.

Key Statistic
1,300: Hours of presidential speeches that were aired between 1999 and 2010.

Using all the tools of power, President Hugo Chávez Frías continued his aggressive campaign to silence critical news media. In the waning days of a lame-duck National Assembly, the Chávez administration pushed through measures to restrict Internet content and tighten control over broadcast licenses. Relying on politicized courts, the government barred two major newspapers from publishing images of crime and violence in the run-up to September legislative elections. And through a series of politically motivated regulatory actions, the administration intimidated one critical broadcaster, Globovisión, and banished another, RCTV International.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

Country Summaries
United States
Other nations

The National Telecommunications Commission, ruling that RCTV International had violated a requirement to air presidential addresses, ordered cable and satellite operators in January to stop carrying the station. Under the Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television, which has been widely criticized for its broad restrictions on free expression, all national broadcasters must carry government programming when ordered, including live broadcasts of Chávez’s addresses, known as cadenas. RCTV International had argued that it was not a national station as defined under the law and was thus exempt from the requirement. The network remained off cable and satellite subscription services in late year.

RCTV International began operating as a paid subscription channel after the government pulled the original station, known simply as RCTV, from the public airwaves in mid-2007. The country’s oldest broadcaster, RCTV was also one of Chávez’s harshest critics. In the RCTV cases and numerous others, CPJ found a regulatory process in which decisions were predetermined and politically motivated. In 2009, regulators removed dozens of critical radio stations from the public airwaves, according to CPJ research. The threat of losing broadcast licenses has made other television and radio stations pull back on critical programming. 

Chávez has regularly used cadenas to attack the private media and amplify the government’s voice. From 1999, when he first took office, until January 2010, Chávez delivered nearly 2,000 cadenas, accounting for more than 1,300 broadcast hours, or the equivalent of 54 full days, according to research by AGB Nielsen. Chávez also used a weekly call-in program, “Aló, Presidente,” aired on state radio and television, to lambaste news media and opposition critics. He stepped up his exposure in February, launching a new radio program called “De repente con Chávez” (Suddenly, With Chávez). The show, which aired on state-owned Radio Nacional de Venezuela, did not keep a regular schedule, instead broadcasting when the president had a sudden need to speak.

In August, a court that normally handles juvenile matters barred local media from publishing images of crime in the run-up to legislative elections. The case began when the Caracas daily El Nacional published an archival photo of corpses piling up in a local morgue to illustrate an August 13 front-page report on rising crime. Soon after Chávez called the image “pornographic,” the court ruled that El Nacional could not publish “images, information, and publicity of any type that contains blood, guns, alarming messages, or physical aggression.” The court’s order said that such material could harm children and teenagers. In a show of solidarity, the critical daily Tal Cual reprinted the morgue photograph on August 16, sparking a second, broader ruling. This time, the court barred all Venezuelan print media from publishing violent images for one month.

After domestic and international condemnation, the court lifted the media-wide ban two days later and allowed El Nacional to resume print coverage of violence. But photo prohibitions remained in place against El Nacional and Tal Cual in late year.

CPJ and numerous others said the case reflected administration efforts to quash news coverage of crime, which was among the public’s top concerns in the weeks leading up to the September election. “The crime rate has become a critical issue for the government,” said Miguel Otero, editor of El Nacional. “These rulings were a very convenient way to stop crime stories from going public.” In this case, however, the government’s efforts to control news coverage may have backfired: News media aggressively covered the crime issue in the aftermath of the court order, said Ewald Scharfenberg, executive director of the local press group IPYS Venezuela. Chávez’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela won the most seats in the legislative elections, but it lost the two-thirds supermajority allowing for quick passage of its measures.

Anticipating a less compliant National Assembly in 2011, the administration pushed a set of repressive measures through the legislature during a lame-duck session in December. The assembly, acting with little debate, adopted measures that extended the restrictive social responsibility law to the Internet, granted broadcast regulators tighter control over licensing, and barred press freedom and other nongovernmental organizations from receiving foreign support. Press freedom advocates decried the changes, which prohibit online media from publishing material that “foments citizens’ anxiety,” “alters public order” or “disrespects authorities.” Broadcast licenses were shortened from 20 years to 15 years, and regulators were granted authority to revoke a license based on a sole violation. The assembly also gave Chávez the power to rule by decree for 18 months.

Two critical journalists were targeted in criminal prosecutions. In June, a court in Carabobo state fined Francisco Pérez, a columnist with the daily El Carabobeño, 94,000 bolivares (US$21,000) on criminal defamation charges. He was also barred from working as a journalist for three years and nine months, El Carabobeño reported. The charges stemmed from 2009 columns in which Pérez accused Valencia Mayor Edgardo Parra of appointing relatives to political positions. In November, an appeals court tossed out the conviction.

Journalist Gustavo Azócar, a harsh government critic, was found guilty of fraud in March concerning the handling of a 2000 advertising contract between the state lottery and Radio Noticias 1060, a private station that employed the journalist at the time, according to press reports. Judge José Hernán Oliveros imposed a prison term of two and a half years, but freed Azócar on parole. (The journalist had been in custody since July 2009.) CPJ research showed the criminal prosecution of Azócar was trumped up to retaliate for his critical commentary. Azócar, active in Venezuela’s opposition movement, won a deputy’s seat in the September election. He also appealed the conviction.

Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the private television network Globovisión, was arrested in late March after being accused of spreading false news and offending Chávez in remarks to the Inter American Press Association, the regional publishers group. Zuloaga was released a few hours later, a development Chávez decried. On June 11, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Zuloaga and his son on charges of conspiracy and unlawful lending. Zuloaga, who owns a number of car dealerships, denied wrongdoing and said the charges had been fabricated as a way to close the station. He fled to the United States and filed a request for political asylum.

Regulators continued to harass Globovisión, opening several administrative investigations that accused the network of “inciting rebellion” and creating “panic and anxiety in the population.” A sanction in any one case could lead to the station’s suspension for up to 72 hours; a second sanction could result in the revocation of its broadcast license. Globovisión was the target of attack in August 2009, when a group of armed assailants on motorcycles stormed its Caracas offices and set off tear gas canisters, injuring a police officer and two employees.

In December, the Chávez administration announced it was acquiring a 20 percent stake in Globovisión. The acquisition was part of a government takeover of Banco Federal, whose president had controlled a minority stake in Globovisión. The OAS special rapporteur on freedom of expression immediately called on Venezuela to ensure that Globovisión can cover the news without government interference. The government said it had the right to name a member to the Globovisión board of directors.

Authorities took an important step forward in combating impunity in anti-press violence. In August, Colombian authorities acting on a Venezuelan warrant arrested businessman Walid Makled García in the border city of Cúcuta, according to news reports. Venezuelan authorities had accused Makled of plotting the 2009 murder of Orel Sambrano, director of Radio América and the weekly ABC de la Semana, in reprisal for coverage linking the businessman’s brother to drug traffickers. Makled denied any connection to the slaying in a letter to Venezuelan media. In November, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that Makled would be extradited to Venezuela, although the process could take months. In May, a court in Carabobo state sentenced a former police sergeant to 25 years in prison on conspiracy charges related to the Sambrano murder, according to news accounts.

In November, CPJ presented an International Press Freedom Award to Laureano Márquez, the prominent journalist, author, actor, and humorist. Márquez, known for his biting columns in the Caracas daily Tal Cual and other national publications, is also the author of three books of humor, including the 2004 national bestseller, Código Bochinche. In January, Márquez wrote an opinion piece in Tal Cual that imagined Venezuela freed from the political oppression of a ruler named “Esteban,” a veiled reference to Chávez. Information Minister Blanca Eekhout demanded the journalist be criminally prosecuted, describing the column as an assault on the country’s democracy. No charges were filed against the journalist.

“A new form of authoritarianism is taking hold in the world that uses democratic methods to put an end to democracy,” Márquez said in accepting the CPJ award. “In such models, those in power need people to fear expressing dissenting views. In the midst of this silence, governments go about the business of dismantling democratic institutions. The Venezuelan experience has shown me that it is essential for all citizens to be aware of the importance of free expression and, moreover, that this is not merely a concern for journalists and media workers, but for all citizens.”