2003 World Press Freedom Review

Relations between President Hugo Chávez’s government and Venezuela’s privately-owned and largely pro-opposition press continued to deteriorate as the political atmosphere became increasingly polarised in 2003. A crippling national strike, called on 2 December 2002 by a number of business, labour and civic organisations in an attempt to force Chávez’s resignation, left at least seven people dead. During the 63-day strike, Venezuela’s private media actively backed the opposition, with television networks broadcasting hours of pro-strike and anti-Chávez programming. According to some estimates, an average of 700 pro-strike advertisements were broadcast every day during the general strike.

Chávez, in turn, used his own nationwide radio and television programmes, both on state-run channels, to attack the media, accusing journalists of fomenting a coup and threatening to revoke the licenses of the four main private television stations, who he dubbed the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." He also made frequent use of a law requiring media outlets to pre-empt their regular programming and transmit Chávez’s speeches and political programmes in their entirety.

In August, opponents of Chávez delivered a petition signed by more than three million Venezuelans to call a referendum on Chávez’s rule. However, the country’s National Election Council rejected the petition in September, saying it failed to meet technical requirements. In December, the opposition handed in a second petition demanding a referendum to remove Chávez from office.

Even before the political crises of 2002 and 2003, the relationship between Chávez and the media was extremely adversarial. Ever since sweeping to power in February 1999 on a left of centre platform, he has accused the media of "distorting" his proposals for reform and of refusing to report his alleged political and economic successes.

After the failed coup d’état of 11 April 2002 and rumours of another coup, Chávez intensified his attacks on journalists, describing the media as "trash" and accusing them of disseminating "lies, perversion and immoralities."

Chávez’s aggressive rhetoric 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 or physically attacked by groups close to the government, including the so-called "Círculos Bolivarianos" (Bolivarian Circles). Others 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 accompanied these crimes.

Apart from verbal and physical aggression, journalists were also confronted with legal and administrative harassment, and proposals for new legislation that contradicted international norms and treaties.

A special clause stating that all persons have the right to "timely, truthful and impartial information" was included in the 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."

A ruling of the Constitutional Chamber of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Decision 1013 of June 2001, codified the constitutional right to "truthful information" when it established criteria for "timely, truthful and impartial information." In its ruling, the court 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."

In July, press freedom groups condemned a decision by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court upholding prior censorship and several "desacato" (insult) and criminal defamation provisions in the country’s Criminal Code. In its 15 July ruling, the court held that although the Constitution prohibits censorship, there were implicit exceptions for prior censorship of war propaganda and material that was discriminatory or promoted religious intolerance. The court also declared that laws protecting public authorities and institutions from insulting criticism were constitutional. The ruling was made in response to an appeal filed in March 2001 by a private citizen, Rafael Chavero Gazdik, a lawyer who writes about constitutional issues, who argued that several articles in the Criminal Code were unconstitutional and violated Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights.

Articles 148 and 149 of the Criminal Code provide for prison terms of up to three years and three months for anyone insulting "by speech or in writing" the president, the vice president, the president of the legislature, the chief justice, and numerous other government officials, or by showing them "lack of respect in any other way." Article 150 provides for prison terms for anyone insulting the legislature, the judiciary or the cabinet.

In his ruling, Supreme Court Justice Jesús Eduardo Cabrera Romero wrote that powerful economic and political groups within society should not be allowed to express thoughts and ideas that potentially weaken state institutions. Cabrera maintained that "such institutional weakening may be promoted through persistent, vulgar, slanderous, excessive and fallacious attacks against the bodies that make up the country’s institutional fabric."

On 13 February, two restrictive bills passed first reading in the National Assembly.

The bill on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which includes provisions for state regulation of the content of media broadcasts, was condemned by journalists and free press groups as an attempt to impose prior censorship in radio and television. Under the draft bill, commonly known as the Media Content Law, television and radio stations that broadcast content that includes "incitement to war, disruptions of public order, crime or promotes threats to national security" may be closed for up to 48 hours. In addition, the broadcasting of material that "promotes, supports or incites disrespect towards legitimate institutions and authorities", such as members of parliament, magistrates, the head of state, ministers and electoral or military authorities, would be considered a "very grave violation" of the law. Repeated violations could result in the revoking of a station’s broadcasting permit.

Journalists also expressed concern over another bill, the Organic Law of Citizen Participation, which would set up a News Media Watch Council authorised to penalise print media that, according to its judgment, do not report in a "true and impartial" manner.

Violent attacks on journalists intensified during the nine-week general strike that began on 2 December 2002.

On 6 January, a Promar Televisión news crew were attacked by Chávez supporters while covering an opposition protest in Barquisimeto, Lara state. According to one of the journalists, reporter Verioska Velasco, the attackers threw stones at the crew, beat cameraman Luis Mata and his assistant, Alfonso Vásquez, and stole their equipment.

On 7 January, a Venevisión television news crew, comprising journalist Mauricio Cabal, cameraman Ruben Brito and assistant Marcos Martínez, was attacked by Chávez supporters in Anaco, Anzoátegui state. According to Cabal, the attackers hit the crew’s car with sticks, pipes and rocks, breaking the windshield. A military officer in an army jeep was nearby, but did not intervene to stop the violence, he said.

On 14 January, alleged Chávez supporters tried to set fire to the vehicle of a Televen TV news crew covering a demonstration in the capital, Caracas. Officers watching the incident made no attempt to stop the attack.

Igor Aranzazu, a technician for Venevisión, was arrested on 23 January by officers of the National Guard and Venezuelan Air Force for allegedly sabotaging the station’s airing of a national address by Chávez. Venevisión president Victor Ferreres said, "Aranzazu’s constitutional and human rights have been violated, because of a technical error he made during a presidential television broadcast." According to Ferreres, Aranzazu mistakenly pushed a button that caused the audio from an opposition protest to interfere with the presidential broadcast. Aranzazu, who was charged with violating Article 189 of the Telecommunications Act and faced a jail term of up to four years, was released on 20 February.

On 2 February, a CMT television station vehicle was set on fire by alleged Chávez supporters during an opposition demonstration near the Education Ministry in downtown Caracas. TV reporter Rafael Fuenmayor, cameraman Carlos Delgado and assistant Vladimir Bataglini managed to escape unharmed, but their personal items were stolen.

On 4 February, photojournalist Angel Véliz of the daily Impacto was stabbed in the right arm by members of the pro-government "Círculos Chavistas" while covering clashes following an opposition demonstration. National Guard officers who were present did not stop the attackers from severely beating Véliz, who was rescued by colleagues. Journalists Victor Arias of Impacto, Daniel Olivares and Moreiba Castellanos of El Tiempo, and Radio Orbita reporter Milinse Castellanos were also attacked.

Even before the end of the general strike on 3 February, journalists and press freedom groups accused President Chávez of launching a political vendetta against the private TV news channels, with the goal of suspending their licenses temporarily or permanently, because of their pro-opposition coverage of the general strike.

On 12 January, during his weekly Sunday programme, "Aló Presidente" (Hello President), Chávez warned the four TV stations that proceedings leading to the possible suspension of their broadcast licences would be initiated if they continued to transmit "propaganda" in support of the strike. "If they continue to use their broadcasts to break the country in half or overthrow the government, I will be forced to revoke their licences," Chávez warned.

In January and February, the four main television stations, Globovisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Televen and Venevisión, as well as a regional station, Televisión Regional de Táchira (TRT), were told they were the subjects of administrative investigations.

The Ministry of Infrastructure (MINFRA), which administers radio and television licences, launched an investigation on 17 January to determine whether Globovisión and RCTV had violated media broadcast regulations by broadcasting "propaganda" in support of the general strike. MINFRA officials notified the stations on 20 January that they were under investigation for allegedly violating the Radio Communications Regulations, the Partial Regulations on Television Transmissions and Organic Telecommunications Law, which prohibit the transmission of items inciting rebellion, disrespect of institutions and their authorities, and subversion of public order, as well as the broadcast of false or malicious news. Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello cited as evidence of the alleged violations, broadcasts of statements by opposition leaders and military officers, as well as political advertisements by opposition groups. Both stations faced fines and the possible suspension or cancellation of their broadcasting licenses, Cabello said.

On 30 January, the government announced that it was also investigating Televen. Infrastructure Ministry official Carmen Carillo visited Televen to deliver a document announcing the start of the investigation into the alleged broadcasting of "propaganda" in support of the strike.

On 5 February, Infrastructure Ministry officials notified the Venevisión television station that it, too, was under investigation.

On 11 February, the National Telecommunications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones – CONATEL) announced that Globovisión was being fined more than US$ 90,000 for allegedly failing to pay its taxes. According to CONATEL Director Jesse Chacón, the fines were being levied on the basis of an audit initiated on 27 November 2002 and completed on 10 February. Globovisión’s director, Alberto Federico Ravell, insisted the station did not owe any taxes and dismissed the CONATEL claim as politically motivated and lacking any legal basis.

In March, the National Tax Service (SENIAT) announced that it was investigating the country’s private television stations in connection with political announcements they transmitted during the general strike. National Tax Superintendent Trino Alcides Díaz said the object of the investigation was to discover whether or not political announcements were broadcast during the strike as "donations" to the opposition, and to establish the amount of taxes the stations must pay. "If the air time was donated, they have to pay the applicable taxes. Donations for cultural, scientific and charitable activities are tax-exempt, but not for other kinds of activities," he stated.

On 2 June, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court refused to grant a petition filed on 29 January by the television stations Globovisión, Televen and RCTV to have several articles of the Telecommunications Law declared unconstitutional. Representatives of the stations asked the court to strike down paragraph 6 of Article 171, which permits the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses; Article 183, which grants CONATEL the power to suspend a broadcasting outlet’s signal; and paragraphs 1 and 8 of Article 208, which give the executive the power to regulate the content of radio and television transmissions. The Constitutional Chamber ruled that "neither the facts related by the plaintiffs nor an analysis of the articles in question justifies the use of the Constitutional Chamber’s preventive powers."

In October, the seizure of broadcasting equipment belonging to Globovisión was widely condemned by journalists.

CONATEL officials opened administrative proceedings against the station on 3 October to determine whether it was violating telecommunications regulations. On the same day, officials removed equipment, including several transmission dishes and antennae, from the station’s roof and from two hilltop sites above Caracas that had allowed the station to carry live broadcasts from locations outside its studios. Globovisión director Ravell called the confiscation "an attack on freedom of expression" and said that the station could no longer cover what was happening in the streets.

Information and Communications Minister Jesse Chacón said the actions were carried out because "Globovisión was using frequencies illegally," an allegation Globovisión representatives denied. Chacón said that under Article 183 of the Telecommunications Law, CONATEL could take preventive measures, such as the confiscation of equipment, in cases of illegal frequency use. "Nobody is denying the right of television or radio stations to use microwave frequencies, but they have to have the necessary permission."

In December, CONATEL announced that Globovisión had been using frequencies without authorisation and said it was fining the station US$ 360,750. "In accordance with Articles 166, 173 and 175 of the Telecommunications Law, the mentioned operator is fined 30,000 taxation units, equivalent to 582,000,000 bolívares, in addition to confiscation of the equipment used to commit the offence," CONATEL announced on its website.

Globovisión said it would appeal before the Political and Administrative Chamber of the Supreme Court to overturn CONATEL’s decision, claiming that the ruling against the television station violated constitutional principles and the right to due process.

Despite the end of the general strike in early February, journalists continued to be harassed, threatened and physically attacked throughout the year. The following is a list of some of the most serious incidents:

Police attempted to arrest Ibéyise Pacheco, editor of the daily Así es la Noticia, on 11 March. Pacheco reported that officers of the Scientific and Criminal Investigations Unit (CICPC) and the Directorate of Police Intelligence Services (DISIP) arrived in ten patrol cars and surrounded the Kyss FM station in Caracas, where she hosts a radio programme, with the intention of arresting her. According to Pacheco, the police closed the street on which the radio station is located, but did not enter the building. Juan Barreto, Member of Parliament for the ruling party, later said there was an arrest warrant for Pacheco for failing to appear in court. Pacheco faced 16 charges in a number of civil courts "for the alleged misuse of journalism and for altering information to the detriment of people’s reputation," he said.

On 8 July, police again attempted to arrest Pacheco. According to reports, Commissioner Miguel Rodríguez Torres of the DISIP was responding to a 3 July order to locate and bring the journalist to court, issued by Judge Cristina Pérez of the Caracas 21st Tribunal. Pérez requested that Pacheco appear before the court in order to respond to a defamation suit filed against her by Colonel Ángel Vellorí in March 2002. Vellorí accused Pacheco of having published "lies" about him in her column "En Privado", which is published in the daily El Nacional. Judge Pérez also requested that the Caracas Public Prosecutor's Office open an investigation into the CICPC for having failed to carry out previous orders to bring Pacheco before the court. Pacheco informed the media that she was being pursued for "political reasons."

On 4 April, a warrant for the arrest of Tulio Capriles Hernández, president of El Siglo newspaper, was issued by a judge in Aragua state government. El Siglo’s manager, Mireya de Zurita, accused Aragua Governor Didalco Bolívar of ordering the arrest. According to Zurita, Governor Bolívar had been harassing the newspaper for the past four years. In addition, the newspaper’s employees and offices have been attacked on several occasions, and unknown individuals destroyed two of the station’s vehicles, she said.

On 13 May, Roberto Giusti, host of the programme, "Golpe a golpe" on Radio Caracas Radio (RCR), filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office denouncing the death threats he had been receiving. On 2 May, a group of about ten people entered RCR’s studios and began shouting offensive slogans at the journalist and calling him a "murderer". The attackers sprayed graffiti on the building’s walls and Giusti’s car. Giusti called for an investigation into the incident and possible links to his reports on the presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela.

On 27 June, Journalists’ Day in Venezuela, an unidentified assailant threw a Molotov cocktail at the car of journalist Marta Colomina, host of the programme "La Entrevista" on Televén and a columnist for El Universal. According to Colomina, two vehicles tried to intercept her car as she drove to the television station in the morning. Four armed men leapt out of one of the vehicles and one of them threw a Molotov cocktail, which did not explode. Colomina, a well-known critic of President Chávez, considered the attack an attempt to intimidate her.

On 10 July, journalist Patricia Poleo and her production team were assaulted while reporting on location in Barinas, southwestern Venezuela. According to Poleo, a group of alleged Chávez supporters threatened and insulted the news crew, forcing them to return to the Barinas 880 radio station. A group of some 200 pro-Chávez demonstrators arrived at the station in municipal government vehicles and began throwing rocks and sticks. Poleo, the programme’s guests and radio station employees were forced to stay inside the studios for more than two hours, while state police and National Guard officers on the scene did nothing to restore order.


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