De CPJ: Venezuela Country Report
8 julio 2000

La Razón
Pablo López Ulacio, La Razón

López Ulacio, editor of the weekly La Razón, went underground after boycotting hearings related to a prominent businessman's criminal defamation suit against his paper. Prior to the editor's disappearance, La Razón was twice barred from publishing information related to the suit, and López Ulacio himself was twice placed under house arrest.

The suit was filed by Tobías Carrero, a businessman with close ties to President Hugo Chávez Frías and National Legislative Assembly president Luis Miquilena. Carrero claimed that the honor and reputation of his insurance company, Multinacional de Seguros, had been damaged in September 1999 articles by La Razón journalist Santiago Alcala.

Alcala, author of a column called "El Quirsfano" ("The Operating Room"), reported that in February 1999, the state-owned Guarantees and Banking Deposits Fund (Fogade) failed to solicit competitive bids before awarding major contracts to Multinacional de Seguros. Alcala raised similar questions about the September 1999 auction of the state-owned radio group YVKE Mundial to four radio stations controlled by Carrero.

The suit was filed under Article 444 of the Criminal Code, which allows judges to impose criminal penalties, including jail sentences, in defamation lawsuits brought by private individuals.

On June 30, Carrero's lawyer, Mayra Vernet, filed a petition to close down La Razón with presiding judge David Pérez. Pérez rejected the petition but issued an order prohibiting the newspaper from publishing information related to the suit.

On July 8, López Ulacio was placed under house arrest after he failed to attend a series of court hearings related to the suit. In a telephone interview from his home, López Ulacio said he had boycotted the hearings to protest what he believed were tainted proceedings.

On July 10, Chief Court Inspector Reni Molina called on Judge Pérez to recuse himself from the case, citing his "evident partiality." Pérez complied two days later, and the case was transferred to a new judge, Graudy Villegas.

Villegas revoked the house-arrest order against López Ulacio on July 13, but continued to bar La Razón from publishing information related to the lawsuit. López Ulacio's lawyers subsequently asked Judge Villegas to overturn Judge Pirez's order. Judge Villegas refused, but scheduled a new court hearing for August 4.

Lspez Ulacio also boycotted this hearing, and then became a fugitive when Judge Villegas ordered him placed under house arrest.

Lspez Ulacio's lawyer, Omar Estacio, argued that the house-arrest order violated "basic rules of criminal procedure, which do not expressly prescribe house arrest for contempt." He also claimed to have received anonymous threats for defending Lspez Ulacio.

The case was later brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On November 8, CPJ wrote a letter to IACHR executive secretary Jorge Taiana and IACHR special rapporteur for freedom of expression Santiago A. Canton, arguing that Lspez Ulacio could not hope to receive a fair trial in Venezuela. On February 8, the IACHR granted injunctive relief.

At press time, the journalist was living in exile in Costa Rica.


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