2000 World Press Freedom Review

Relations between President Hugo Chávez's government and the largely pro-opposition press continued to deteriorate throughout the year. Venezuela's journalists complained about Chávez's policy of aggression towards the media and his frequent verbal attacks on the press. Moreover, they feared that an article in the new constitution, which stipulates that reporting must be "timely, truthful, and impartial," will have an adverse effect on press freedom in their country. Several journalists were confronted with legal pressure, including charges of criminal defamation and libel, and several journalists were forced into hiding.

Even before the new 350-article constitution was overwhelmingly approved by Venezuelans in a national referendum on 15 December 1999, Chávez lashed out at local and foreign media, criticising them for "distorting" his proposals for reform. While Chávez, who swept to power in February 1999 on a left-leaning nationalist platform, maintained that the new constitution would strengthen democracy, broaden civil rights and eliminate corruption, his critics said the new basic law concentrated too much power in the presidency and contained numerous controversial articles, including the "truthful information" clause, which would be impossible to enforce and could lead to censorship.

President Chávez further consolidated his political power in November 2000, when the Venezuelan national assembly gave him special presidential powers to bypass congress when enacting laws in key areas (the financial sector, industry and agriculture, infrastructure, personal and legal security, science and technology, and the public sector), raising concerns that his efforts to stamp out the old political order have left the country without sufficient checks and balances. "What concerns me is that the measures of reform being taken are tending to centralize power without adequate checks and balances and without reinforcing the independence of the judiciary," UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson said at a news conference in Venezuela in December.

Local and international press freedom organisations have criticised article 58 of the new constitution, which states that, "everyone has the right to timely, truthful, impartial and uncensored information," as a violation of international standards of freedom of expression, including article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to "information and ideas of all kinds." Article 58 threatened the Venezuelan people's right to information since the government could use it to restrict information it deemed untruthful, free press organisations said.

In October 2000, the IPI Executive Board unanimously agreed to add Venezuela to the "IPI Watch List," a mechanism to detect and document regressive tendencies in countries that appear to be moving towards suppressing or restricting press freedom. Venezuela was included on the "IPI Watch List" because of Chávez's increasingly hostile attitude towards the media and because the new constitution poses a number of threats to freedom of expression and opinion that could spell the end of press freedom in Venezuela, one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, the IPI Board said.

Throughout the year, Chávez, who has called journalists "professional deceivers," continued to hurl threats and insults at the media, alienating publishers and editors who say he is trying to intimidate them and raising concerns that the verbal assaults could provoke violence against journalists. In one statement, Chávez said that he will take reprisals against those media that criticise his administration, declaring that "if they attack me, let them watch out, they'll get as good as they give." In another, he warned Venezuelans to "unchain themselves from the dictatorship [journalists] represent."

Chávez continued to use his public broadcasts and his own newspaper, El Correo del Presidente (The President's Mail), to counter what he considers unfair coverage and to attack journalists who oppose his "peaceful revolution." In September, he accused CNN of lying, saying it had distorted news about the summit meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) hosted by Venezuela. When an editorial critical of Chávez appeared in The Washington Post in November, the president accused Andrés Mata, editor of the leading national daily, El Universal, of being behind it. "I know where you move, I know who you meet with," Chávez said in a national radio broadcast. "I know you are behind this editorial."

On several occasions, Venezuela's journalists protested against Chávez's hostility towards the press. In March, a group of some 20 journalists refused to ask the president questions at a news conference in Maracay, north-central Venezuela. "In view of your repeatedly disrespectful attitude, and your assessment of our questions as irrelevant, we have decided not to pose any questions this afternoon," a radio journalist told the president who, visibly annoyed, stormed from the room.

In May, hundreds of journalists, protesting Chávez's attitude towards the media, held a march in downtown Caracas. The protest was also held to display solidarity with journalist Napoleon Bravo, producer and host of a popular TV programme cancelled on 4 May allegedly as a result of government pressure. Bravo, whose morning talk show, "24 Hours," was critical of Chávez, said that he had received death threats from the police. "I hold the president responsible for what might happen to me or my family", he told a news conference in Caracas.

When not confronted with verbal attacks from the president and his officials, journalists faced a barrage of litigation, including charges of defamation and libel. One journalist, Pablo López, editor-in-chief of the weekly La Razón, was forced into hiding after Judge Graudi Villegas ordered that he be placed under house arrest for failing to attend a court hearing on 4 August in a criminal defamation suit filed in October 1999 against the paper and its editor under article 444 of Venezuela's criminal code by prominent Venezuelan businessman Tobías Carrero. In September 1999, La Razón columnist Santiago Alcalá had published articles alleging that favouritism had been behind the awarding of government contracts to Carrero's insurance company, Multinacional de Seguros, as well as the auctioning of state-owned radio stations to a media company controlled by Carrero, who has close ties with President Chávez.

López, who already spent five days under house arrest in July, was released after the judge in the case was found to be biased and was replaced by Graudi Villegas. López has said that he is the victim of a government campaign "against free and independent journalism" and that he has been harassed for over a year in an attempt "to bring him to his knees and intimidate [La Razón] into becoming submissive and complacent". He is convinced that he will not get a fair trial.

In September, Judge Miroslava Bonilla dismissed the criminal defamation case against Ben Ami Fihman, editor of the monthly Revista Exceso, and Faitha Nahmens, a reporter for the same publication. The two journalists had gone into hiding in February after a Caracas judge ordered their arrest for disobeying a summons to answer charges they claimed were no longer legally valid. The charges against Fihman and Nahmens date back to the June 1997 publication of an article about the killing of a businessman by hired assassins. Numerous irregularities marked the judicial proceedings, including the fact that the statute of limitation rules under the Code of Criminal Prosecution were ignored.


regreso a documentos            regreso a Libertad de Expresión