2001 World Press Freedom Review

Decision 1013 of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which defined criteria for "timely, truthful and impartial information", increased concern in Venezuela over freedom of the press and President Hugo Chávez's hostile attitude towards the media.

The Supreme Court's 12 June decision came in response to a petition filed by Elías Santana, a columnist for the national daily El Nacional and coordinator of the civic group Queremos Elegir. Santana filed the petition to assert his right to reply after President Chávez criticized both the journalist and Queremos Elegir on his weekly call-in radio show, "Aló, Presidente", and refused to take his calls during the programme. Although the Constitution provides for the right to reply, the Supreme Court denied Santana's petition, ruling that this right was intended to benefit citizens who do not have access to a public forum, as opposed to those who work in the media.

In its ruling, the Court also established criteria for "timely, truthful and impartial information" when it asserted that the media must avoid spreading "false news or news that is manipulated by the use of half truths; disinformation that denies the opportunity to know the reality of the news; and speculation or biased information to obtain a specific goal against someone or something".

In addition, the Court ruled that journalists may express their opinions if they do not contain "insults that are out of context, disconnected, or unnecessary for the topic; or offensive, insidious, or degrading expressions that are not connected to the topic, or unnecessary for the forming of public opinion". It also ruled that a publication could be in violation of the constitution's "truthful information" article if a majority of its columns and editorials followed the same ideological tendency but the publication did not declare that ideology explicitly.

The right to "timely, truthful and impartial information" was first included in article 58 of Venezuela's 1999 Constitution, despite protests by local and international press freedom groups that the provision threatened the Venezuelan people's right to information and was in violation of international standards for freedom of expression, including article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to "information and ideas of all kinds."

The Supreme Court's ruling codifies the constitutional right to "truthful information" and could open the doors for the judiciary, which is dominated by President Chávez's supporters, to punish those media that criticise the policies of the president and his government.

Those policies came increasingly under attack during 2001 as Chávez saw support for his radical reform plans dwindle. Although still popular among Venezuela's poor majority, the president's confrontational style and apparent inability to end the country's economic crisis, improve the standard of living or reduce violent crime has frustrated many supporters and alienated potential allies.

Relations between Chávez and the privately-owned and largely pro-opposition press continued to deteriorate as the president lashed out at journalists for being "unfair" and "distorting" his proposals for reform.

Chávez frequently used his weekly call-in radio show, "Aló, Presidente", and a similar twice-monthly TV show, "Cara a cara con el Presidente", both on state-run channels, to attack journalists who oppose his "peaceful revolution".

In addition, on 9 February, he announced that he would make a weekly national address on all radio and TV channels to counter "distorted news" in the private media. "All the polls say a high percentage of you like these addresses which inform the people about the Revolution," Chávez said in a broadcast speech. "I have decided from today to give a weekly nation-wide address, because unfortunately you do not receive all the information we would like you to receive through the media."

All TV and radio stations were required by law to pre-empt their regular programming and transmit these national broadcasts – sometimes two or more hours in length – in their entirety. In addition, every TV station was required to broadcast a regular "news programme" produced by the president's staff. Varying in length from five to 15 minutes, these programmes focus on the activities of the president and the government.

Chávez also continued to use his public speeches and broadcasts to attack foreign media. In October, he accused a leading Colombian magazine, Cambio, of joining the international "media war" against him. The magazine had quoted an alleged former member of Colombia's FARC guerrillas as saying that he had acted as one of Chávez's bodyguards during a May visit to Bogotá with the full knowledge and permission of the Venezuelan president. Chávez also lambasted the Venezuelan daily El Nacional for reprinting parts of the Cambio article, accusing the two publications of trying to discredit him by suggesting that he had links with Colombia's Marxist rebels. "On an international level, they are waging a media war against us. The aim is to try to halt the Bolivarian Revolution," he said in a speech to pro-government journalists.

In June, in what was seen as a potential threat for foreign correspondents, Chávez threatened to expel foreigners who insult Venezuela or the government. "I have given instructions that … any foreigner who comes here and says anything offensive against the nation or the government or the president or the people will be expelled from Venezuela," he said.

Chávez's aggressive rhetoric – he has called journalists "unpatriotic", "counter-revolutionary" and "enemies of the rule of law" – has contributed to a climate of intimidation and hostility towards the press. His frequent public diatribes are an incitement to physical violence against the media, journalists say. Several journalists received threatening telephone calls. Others have been verbally or physically harassed, confronted with legal pressure, including charges of criminal defamation and libel, or forced into hiding.

One journalist, Pablo López Ulacio, editor-in-chief of the Caracas-based weekly La Razón, is living in exile in Costa Rica. López went into hiding in August 2000 after Judge Graudi Villegas ordered that he be placed under house arrest for failing to attend a court hearing in a criminal defamation suit filed against him by Tobías Carrero Nácar, a prominent Venezuelan businessman with close ties to Chávez. La Razón had published a number of articles on corruption, including alleged irregularities in the awarding of government contracts to Carrero's insurance company, Multinacional de Seguros.

López, who already spent five days under house arrest in July 2000, was released after the judge in the case was found to be biased and replaced by Graudi Villegas. López says that he is the victim of a government campaign "against free and independent journalism" and that he was 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 receive a fair trial if he returns to Venezuela.

On 3 January, a military judge ordered the arrest of columnist and professor of law Pablo Aure Sánchez for allegedly insulting the army in an open letter published in El Nacional. Aure was detained by military intelligence agents on 8 January and charged under Article 505 of the Military Justice Code, which stipulates penalties of three to eight years imprisonment for anyone "who in any way insults, offends, or belittles the Armed Forces." He was released after two days for health reasons following a public outcry, although the case against him still continues.

In October, Venezuelan journalists accused Chávez of launching a political vendetta against the private TV news channel, Globovisión, after the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) notified the station that it was being investigated to determine whether it had broadcast "false" news. The investigation followed public statements made by Chávez, in which he attacked Globovisión and its director, Alberto Federico Ravell, as "enemies of the revolution" and ordered a government inquiry after the station allegedly provoked a taxi drivers' strike in Caracas. Globovisión had erroneously reported that nine drivers were murdered by criminals in a single night when, in fact, only one driver had been killed. Although the station issued a correction the same day, the investigation could still lead to a fine or suspension of the station's licence.


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