2002 World Press Freedom Review

It was a tempestuous year for Venezuela’s independent journalists. President Hugo Chávez, who first swept to power in elections in 1998 on a left-leaning nationalist platform, was briefly deposed in a coup d’état on 12 April, only to return to office on 14 April after the collapse of the interim government. At year’s end, he appeared to have also survived a weeks-long national strike, which was supported by the privately owned and largely opposition media.

One journalist, Jorge Ibraín Tortoza Cruz, a reporter for the daily newspaper 2001, was shot dead on 11 April while covering the violent clashes between Chávez supporters and opposition demonstrators in the capital, Caracas. According to witnesses, Tortoza, who was carrying a camera and wearing a vest clearly identifying him as a member of the press, was deliberately targeted by a military sniper firing from the roof of the City Hall. No one was charged with the murder.

At least three other journalists reporting on the protests were injured. Jonathan Freitas, a photographer for the daily TalCual, was shot in the arm. Enrique Hernández, a photographer with the state news agency Venpres, was injured by a bullet that grazed his abdomen. Enrique Hernández’s brother, Luis Enrique Hernández, a reporter for the local daily Avance, was hit by two bullets, one in the stomach and one in the kidney.

During the protests, the government pre-empted broadcasts from the local television stations Televén, Venevisión, Globovisión and Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) for a message from the president. After the stations decided to split the screen in two and show their coverage of the general strike alongside Chávez’s address, the government – citing article 192 of the Telecommunications Act, which allows the authorities to requisition air-time on all TV and radio stations – shut them down altogether.

President Chávez justified the temporary closures by claiming that television frequencies were the property of the state and accused local broadcasters of conspiring to overthrow his government.

Even before the attempted coup, the relationship between Chávez and the media was extremely adversarial. Ever since taking office, Chávez has accused the media of distorting facts and of refusing to report his alleged political and economic successes. He has also made frequent use of his own nationwide radio and television programmes, both on state-run channels, to attack local journalists and foreign media.

Chávez’s aggressive rhetoric – he has called journalists "unpatriotic", "enemies of the rule of law" and "professional deceivers" – has created a climate of intimidation and hostility in which the independent media have found it increasingly difficult to operate. Many journalists have been verbally and physically attacked by groups close to the government, including the so-called Circulos Bolivarianos (Bolivarian Circles). Several have been kidnapped, or forced into hiding. Moreover, the government’s failure to conduct thorough inquiries into attacks on journalists has reinforced the impunity that has long accompanied these crimes.

An example of the aggressive behaviour towards journalists occurred on 7 January, when some 100 "Chavistas", or Chávez supporters, laid siege to the offices of the daily newspaper El Nacional. For two hours, the demonstrators chanted hostile slogans and threw various objects at the newspaper building’s front. Journalists in the building did not leave the daily’s offices for fear of being attacked, and the deployment of anti-riot police was necessary to disperse the activists.

The previous evening, in his radio broadcast, Chávez had denounced the daily’s editorial line, accusing one of its journalists, Yelitza Izaya Yánez, of "disrespect" and "lying". On 10 January, speaking in Caracas, Chávez called for "an overthrow of the media’s dictatorship" and maintained that the 7 January demonstration by his supporters in front of the offices of El Nacional was "peaceful".

On 20 January, a TV crew from the station Globovisión, who were covering a broadcast of Chávez’s weekly radio programme, "Aló, Presidente", were threatened and physically attacked by a group of Chávez supporters and had to be escorted to safety by officers of the Presidential Guard.

On 31 January, two men on a motorcycle threw an explosive device at the office building of the daily Así es la noticia in Caracas, causing some material damage. After the attack, flyers accusing Así es la noticia editor Ibéyise Pacheco of propagating an anti-government campaign were found in front of the daily’s offices.

The hostile climate toward the media did not improve after the failed April coup. On the contrary, amid growing political tension and rumours of another coup, Chávez renewed his attacks on the media, describing leading local media as "trash" and accusing them of disseminating "lies, perversion and immoralities". He also said journalists were part of a conspiracy by his enemies to overthrow him.

On 13 April, while Chávez was still in custody, his supporters surrounded the offices of Venevisión, Globovisión and RCTV, smashing windows and forcing staff members to evacuate their offices. On 14 April, after Chávez returned to office, most Caracas-based dailies, including El Nacional and El Universal, did not publish, reportedly because they feared being attacked by Chávez supporters.

On 13 June, a group of Chávez supporters outside the national legislature threw rocks at a Globovisión vehicle and wrote the words "Coup Supporters" and "Traitors" on the vehicle, forcing journalists to seek refuge inside the building.

Fabio Cortés, owner of the daily La Nación, published in San Cristóbal, was kidnapped on 29 June by three armed men who broke into his house while Cortés was having breakfast with his family.

On 9 July, a grenade was thrown at the premises of Globovisión. A tear gas canister was fired at the network’s headquarters on 31 July.

On 1 August, Paulo Perez Zambrano, a photographer for the daily El Universal, and several other photographers and cameramen were attacked by Chávez supporters. Vehicles from Venevisión, Globovisión and RCTV were reportedly damaged.

On 21 September, reporter Rossana Rodríguez, cameraman Felipe Lugo and assistant Wilmer Escalona were covering events near the Miraflores Presidential Palace when eight individuals broke their vehicle’s windows and seized the TV crew’s recording equipment.

On 22 September, unidentified individuals fired shots at the home of Carlos Barrios, director of the regional radio station Astro 97.7 FM in Portuguesa state. Barrios said that after the attack he received a call on his cellular phone, saying the next time the shots would be aimed at him.

A bomb was thrown from a moving vehicle at the studios of the Unión Radio de Caracas station on 19 October. No one was hurt in the incident.

On 4 November, Mauricio Muńoz Amaya, a correspondent for the Associated Press Television News (APTN), was shot at while photographing demonstrations in front of the National Elections Council (CNE) building in Caracas. A bullet, fired from a 9mm calibre pistol, hit Muńoz in the chest. He was not severely injured because he was wearing a bulletproof vest and it was unclear who fired the shot.

Attacks on journalists intensified during the general strike that began on 2 December.

On 3 December, National Guard troops attacked several journalists while they covered an opposition demonstration near the Caracas headquarters of the state oil company, PDVSA. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at journalists and other civilians. Fernando Malavé, a photographer with the Caracas daily 2001, was shot at point-blank range with a rubber bullet. Although he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, Malavé suffered a serious wound to his ribs.

Rafael Fuenmayor, a reporter for the Caracas-based TV channel CMT, was beaten by police. José Antonio Dávila, a CMT technician, was hit with rubber bullets in the face after a guard shot him at point-blank range. Troops also beat Luis Alfonso Fernández of Venevisión and Aymara Lorenzo of Globovisión.

On 4 December, government supporters in the city of Barquisimeto attacked several journalists. The journalists were covering an opposition protest when government supporters began throwing bottles and stones at the protesters.

On 9 December, the Emisora Bolivariana 94.1 radio station called on government supporters to take over Globovisión Zulia. The latter’s studios were raided and equipment, including cameras and computers, were destroyed. Globovisión Zulia had reported extensively on the participation of the country's state oil tanker fleet in the general strike.

Employees of the TVS television station in Maracay, Aragua state, were forced to climb to the roof to protect themselves from attackers. The offices of the Maracay-based dailies El Siglo and El Aragüeńo also suffered damages.

Other media outlets that were targeted included Promar TV in Barquisimeto, TVO in Puerto La Cruz, TV Los Llanos in San Juan de Los Morros, the daily La Voz de Guarenas in Miranda state, 92.3 radio station in Mérida, and Orbita 97.3 FM, in El Tigre, Anzoátegui.

Apart from verbal and physical aggression against the press, administrative measures, constitutional clauses and proposals for new legislation that contradicted international norms and treaties were also a reason for concern.

Among the administrative and legal threats facing Venezuela’s independent journalists:

The Venezuelan Criminal Code still contains "insult" (desacato) laws that penalise offensive expressions against members of Congress and other public officials with prison sentences.

Media outlets are required by law to pre-empt their regular programming and transmit Chávez’s "cadenas", or speeches (sometimes two or more hours), in their entirety.

A proposed Media Content Law, containing provisions permitting cases of prior censorship, and the constitutional right to "timely, truthful and impartial information", first included in article 58 of Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution, are regarded as serious threats to freedom of expression and the Venezuelan people’s right to information.

A 22 June 2001 ruling of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Decision 1013, 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." The decision codifies the constitutional right to "truthful information", and journalists fear that it could open the doors for the judiciary to punish those media that criticise the policies of the president and his government.

The proposed Civilian Participation Law (Ley Orgánica de Participación Ciudadana), debated in the National Assembly in October, contained certain articles that would contradict the Venezuelan constitution and the American Convention on Human Rights, the Venezuelan Press Block (Bloque de Prensa Venezolano – BPV) reported.

In particular, article 133, which would establish the creation of a National Council to oversee the functioning of the media, was seen as a threat. "The council would ensure that information distributed is transparent and objective, receive complaints from the public, civil society organisations and political parties against media outlets, and punish media practices it deems to be illegal," the BPV said.

Finally, journalists complained about a lack of access to information, as well as discrimination in the distribution of state advertising.


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