1999 World Press Freedom Review

Venezuelan journalists feared that an article in the new constitution, which stipulates that reporting must be "timely, truthful, and impartial," could spell the beginning of the end of press freedom in their country, one of Latin America’s oldest democracies. President Hugo Chávez scored a decisive victory on December 15 when a new 350-article constitution drafted by his allies was overwhelmingly approved by Venezuelans in a national referendum. The new constitution was the centre of Chávez’s radical reform plan and aimed at pulling the country out of a prolonged economic and political crisis. While Chávez said the new basic law would strengthen democracy, broaden civil rights, and eliminate widespread corruption, his critics claimed that the charter concentrated too much power in the presidency and contained numerous controversial articles – including the above-mentioned Article 59, which, journalists said, would be impossible to enforce and could lead to censorship.

On November 12, the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, a special constituent assembly elected in July and charged with re-writing the constitution, had ratified in its second reading Article 59, which states that "everyone has the right to timely, truthful, impartial and uncensored information." Local and international press organisations criticised the article as a violation of international standards for freedom of expression, including Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which has been ratified by Venezuela. The article threatened the Venezuelan people's right to information since the government could conceivably restrict information it deemed to be untruthful or partisan, free press advocates agreed. Supporters of the article said "that it was misunderstood, that it mainly was a call for ethics in journalism, and that no entity would be established to review journalists’ work."

President Chávez, who swept to power in February on a left-leaning nationalist platform, led a fierce campaign in support of the new constitution, often alienating important sectors of society – including business and church leaders – in the process. He frequently criticised local and foreign media for "distorting" his proposals for reform, maintaining that he was opposed to general limitations on the media and to the "truthful information" clause. "The best censor we have is public opinion, as has been demonstrated in my case," said Chávez, who is extremely popular among the country’s poor.

In his efforts to counter what he considered unfair media coverage, Chávez launched an English-language version of his government-funded daily, The President’s Mail, for sale abroad. He also started a weekly radio talk show, "Hello, President", where citizens could call in and talk to their president live on air, and a similar twice-monthly TV show, "Face to Face With the President," on a state-run channel. In July, the National Electoral Council suspended Chávez from hosting the hit shows because they said he was using them illegally to promote the July 25 vote for a constituent assembly. Chávez was able to get around the order by giving a nationally-televised speech during the scheduled TV show – which included a fierce attack on the electoral officials – and by sending three aides to host his radio programme, while he called in as a listener.

A group of a dozen people representing a "Congress of Artists and Intellectuals" peacefully occupied the Caracas office of the Associated Press (AP) for eight hours on September 23 to denounce what they called a smear campaign against Venezuela and Chávez’s reforms. The protesters, who initially said that there was "a conspiracy by some important news organisations" against the reforms and asked for a document to be published in several foreign newspapers, in particular in the United States, left the AP office without incident after determining that "there is now a more favourable international response to Venezuela and this type of action is no longer warranted."

On November 29, two members of the Bureau of Military Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Militar – DIM) appeared at the offices of Radio Guadalupana, located in the city of Coro, Falcón state, and accused the Catholic radio station of "sabotaging" the process of adopting the new constitution. According to Radio Guadalupana’s director, Gisela Rivero, the two men told her that as of that moment they were going to monitor the station’s programmes. The previous evening, Coro’s Archbishop, Roberto Luckert, had harshly criticised President Chávez and called on the Venezuelan people to vote against the new constitution.

On December 7, an explosive device was discovered and de-activated on the premises of the daily newspaper El Universal, which also houses the main offices of three international press agencies, AP, Agence France-Press (AFP), and Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa). An extreme left-wing organisation, the Tupamaro Group, claimed responsibility for the failed attack. Ten days earlier, police officers had to de-activate another suspicious package found in the building of the daily El Impulso.


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