Venezuelan court ruling limits coverage of water quality

New York, March 26, 2012–The decision by a Venezuelan court to forbid the press from reporting on issues of water contamination without using a government-approved report is a clear attempt by authorities to censor critical information, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Daniel Guédez, a criminal court judge in the capital, Caracas, ruled on March 21 that any media reports on the quality of the local water supply must be based upon “a truthful technical report supported by a competent government body,” the Attorney General’s office reported. News accounts in recent weeks had questioned whether a nearby river that provides drinking water was contaminated with chemicals. The government has denied that the water is contaminated, news reports said.

“This is effectively a gag order on a matter of public health,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Forbidding the Venezuelan media from reporting on the quality of the water supply is an outrage. Authorities should reverse this decision immediately.”

Less than 24 hours before the ruling was made, President Hugo Chávez Frías asked the Attorney General’s office and the Supreme Court to investigate anyone who alleged the water was contaminated, according to news reports. But in an interview on Thursday, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said the decision was unrelated to the president’s statements, and that it had originated from a complaint made by three citizens who said the reports on water contamination were creating public panic. “The media has an obligation to inform truthfully and cannot generate this kind of fear in the population,” Díaz said.

Local free expression group Espacio Público has said, however, that in the past, authorities have been uncooperative about sharing government-approved reports. After seeking official results for water quality tests last year, the group received a letter stating: “All the necessary tests were conducted…the quality of water in the city of Caracas is drinkable according to parameters established by the World Health Organization.”

Chávez’ administration has waged a systematic campaign to stifle critical reporting through regulatory, judicial, and legislative avenues, CPJ research shows. In 2010, a court barred local media from publishing images of crime in the run-up to the September legislative elections, a decision that followed years of politicized regulatory rulings that removed critical Venezuelan broadcasters from the airwaves.