Venezuelan newspaper shut, executives charged

New York, August 24, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the closure of the Venezuelan newspaper 6to Poder after a judge ruled on Monday that the weekly cease distribution. The newspaper’s owner and a top executive were charged with incitement to hatred, insulting a public official, and publicly denigrating women after the paper published a satirical article on government officials, local press reports said.

“The closing of 6to Poder and the serious charges against its executives are nothing but censorship and an attempt to intimidate other media from indulging in satire,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The authorities should lift the injunction banning the newspaper, and all charges against its staff should be dropped.”

On Saturday, the weekly published an article titled “Las poderosas de la revolución bonita” (The Powerful Women of the Beautiful Revolution), in which several high-ranking female judges and officials in President Hugo Chávez’s administration were described as having specific functions in a “cabaret directed by Mr. Chávez,” press reports said. The story was accompanied by a photo montage that superimposed the officials’ heads onto the bodies of cabaret dancers.

After the article’s publication, government officials said the piece was derogatory to women and insisted the newspaper be investigated, the press reported. On Monday, a judge issued an injunction that ordered the newspaper to immediately cease distribution while prosecutors investigated the case. The newspaper’s lawyer, Pedro Aranguren, intends to appeal the decision, the press reported.

The newspaper’s top executive, Dinorah Girón, was arrested on Sunday and released on Tuesday, Silvia Alegrett, president of the local journalist group Colegio Nacional de Periodistas, told CPJ. Girón must appear in court every 15 days and is forbidden to talk to the media about the case, Alegrett said. According to press reports, a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Leocenis García, the newspaper’s owner. On Tuesday, the daily El Nacional published a press release by Garcia in which he says he is in hiding.

Under Venezuela’s criminal code, the charges of incitement to hatred and insulting a public official carry prison sentences and high fines; publicly offending women is a punishable offense under the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence Law.

CPJ research shows that the Chávez administration has used all the tools of power to silence critical news media. Relying on politicized courts last year, the government barred two major newspapers from publishing images of crime and violence in the run-up to September legislative elections.

A mounting body of international legal opinion affirms that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved in October 2000, says, “Public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.”