2004 World Press Freedom
President Hugo Chávez won the presidential recall referendum on 15 August with 59 per cent of the vote. Although the opposition contested the result, alleging that there was widespread vote rigging, international observers, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States (OAS), said they found no evidence of fraud.
Having survived a failed coup d'état in April 2002 and a crippling two-month general strike from December 2002 to February 2003, Chávez's referendum victory left him stronger than ever, while Venezuela's privately-owned and largely pro-opposition media, which actively backed the campaign against Chávez, faced renewed verbal and physical attacks, as well as legal and administrative harassment.
On 2 December, the pro-government majority in the National Assembly approved legislation increasing criminal penalties for defamation and broadening the categories of government officials protected by desacato (insult) provisions.
On 7 December, President Chávez signed the controversial Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, commonly known as the Media Content Law, which he described as legislation that would end "media fascism."
Drafted by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), the law bans vulgar language on TV and radio in daytime hours and prohibits images and sounds related to violence, as well as alcohol and drug use. It provides for heavy fines or the closure of stations that broadcast content that includes "incitement to war, disruptions of public order or crime," or promotes "threats to national security." The law also states that the broadcasting of material that "promotes, supports or incites disrespect towards legitimate institutions and authorities" will result in similarly harsh penalties. In addition, the law establishes an 11-person Directorate of Social Responsibility, who will be responsible for enforcing the law and determining punishments. Seven members of the directorate are to be government appointees and the body will be able to impose arbitrary penalties against the media.
The passing of the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television sparked international criticism.
On 7 December, in an open letter to President Chávez, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz condemned "the decision to promulgate a controversial media law that poses serious threats to freedom of expression in Venezuela." The law "threatened journalists' ability to carry out their professional duties" and "compromised the public's right to information," Fritz said.
The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) called the law "an instrument that allows the administration of President Hugo Chávez to meddle in the content of the media and its political editorials."
Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), wrote, "We believe that the law's broad language could be used to muzzle the private media and impose censorship."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said, "This legislation severely threatens press freedom in Venezuela. Its vaguely worded restrictions and heavy penalties are a recipe for self-censorship by the press and arbitrariness by government authorities."
Throughout the year, Chávez and other public officials intensified their verbal attacks on journalists:
In September, Chávez used his weekly radio programme, "Aló, Presidente", to attack publisher Andrés Mata and his newspaper, El Universal, saying Mata "is unpatriotic … and caters to the transnational interests that would like to take over Venezuela."
Defence Minister Jorge Luis García Carneiro accused the media of supporting paramilitary movements, while Foreign Minister Jesús Pérez blamed journalists for sowing hatred and division.
This aggressive rhetoric contributed to a climate of hostility toward the media, in which frequent attacks against journalists by groups close to the government continued to occur with impunity.
One journalist, Mauro Marcano Ramos, was killed by two unidentified gunmen as he was leaving his home in the city of Maturín, Monagas state, on 1 September. Marcano hosted the programme "De Frente con el Pueblo" (Facing the People) on Radio Maturín and wrote a regular column, "Sin bozal" (Without Muzzle), which appeared in several regional newspapers, including the Maturín-based El Oriental. He was known for his exposés on drug trafficking and police corruption, and had received numerous threats, colleagues said.
On 18 January, a TV crew for the Caracas-based 24-hour news channel Globovisión was attacked by alleged government supporters in Caracas. Josua Torres and his assistant, Zullivan Peña, were filming clashes in Plaza Bolívar between members of the opposition party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), and a group of hooded men armed with sticks and pipes, when the latter began hitting the journalists' car, smashing the windshield. A bullet was also fired and hit the car, but Torres and Peña escaped uninjured. According to Torres, some of the attackers were wearing T-shirts and hats with the logo of the Círculos Bolivarianos (Bolivaran Circles), a network of neighbourhood committees with close ties to the government.
Violent attacks on journalists intensified after 27 February, when opposition leaders called on their supporters to take to the streets to demand that the National Electoral Council (CNE), which had disputed the validity of more than a million signatures the opposition had collected, hold a recall referendum on President Chávez's leadership.
During the ensuing violent street clashes throughout the country, in which several people were killed and many more injured, at least 20 journalists, photographers and cameramen covering the events were assaulted.
On 27 February, Vladimir Gallardo, a photojournalist for the regional daily El Impulso, was hit in the face by a rubber bullet near Plaza Venezuela, in downtown Caracas, when National Guard troops fired on opposition demonstrators.
Also on 27 February, Carlos Montenegro, a cameraman with the Caracas-based TV station Televén, was shot in the leg while covering an opposition demonstration in Caracas's Bello Monte area. On the same day, Berenice Gómez, a reporter for the newspaper Últimas Noticias, was surrounded by pro-government protesters in downtown Caracas, threatened and robbed of her personal belongings.
On 28 February, Billy Castro and Wilmar Rodríguez of the daily Impacto were attacked by government supporters while covering demonstrations in the city of Anaco, Anzoátegui state. According to Castro, the attackers were wearing T-shirts with the Círculos Bolivarianos logo.
On 29 February, Felipe Izquierdo, a cameraman for the U.S.-based Spanish-language television station Univisión, was shot in the foot while covering clashes between National Guard troops and anti-Chávez protesters near Caracas's Plaza Altamira. Juan Baretto, a photojournalist for Agence France-Presse (AFP), was hit in the chest by a bullet, which deflected off his bulletproof vest.
On 1 March, Janeth Carrasquilla, a correspondent for Globovisión, was hit on the head by a blunt object while covering clashes between opposition demonstrators and National Guard troops in the city of Valencia, Carabobo state.
The same day, Globovisión journalist Johnny Figarrella was hit in the chest with a tear-gas canister while covering an opposition demonstration in the Caurimare area of Caracas. Henry Delgado and Edgar López, journalists for the Caracas-based daily newspaper, El Nacional, were beaten by National Guard troops, who confiscated their press cards and a camera, in Terrazas del Ávila, a suburb of Caracas.
Also on 1 March, Bernabé Rodríguez, a photographer for the daily El Tiempo, published in Puerto Cruz, Anzoátegui state, was hit in the face by a tear-gas bomb while covering clashes between opposition demonstrators and police.
On 2 March, National Guard troops used their rifle butts to beat journalist Juan Carlos Aguirre, a reporter for CMT television station, and his cameraman, Alejandro Marcano, who were filming clashes between military police and demonstrators near Plaza Francia de Altamira in Caracas. Marcano's equipment was also seized.
A news crew for Televén was threatened and assaulted the same day by a group of some 20 masked individuals while covering opposition demonstrations in the eastern part of Caracas. The group seized cameraman Frank Molina's camera before forcing the journalists to leave the area.
On 3 March, Carlos Colmenares, a cameraman for the Caracas-based television channel Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), was shot in the ankle while covering opposition demonstrations in Caracas.
Reporters for Globovisión and the Valencia-based newspaper Notitarde were assaulted by alleged pro-Chávez supporters on 29 May, while covering an event in the La Lucha de Horizonte area of Caracas. Sandra Sierra Núñez and Pedro Rey of Notitarde and Marta Palma Troconis and Josua Torres of Globovisión were covering a signature verification process, or "reparo", for the referendum on Chávez's term in office.
On 3 June, pro-Chávez demonstrators attacked the offices of RCTV. The attackers, who threw stones and other objects at the building, also rammed a truck into the entrance. The same day, some 20 people attacked the offices of El Nacional in downtown Caracas. The attackers threw bottles and stones at the building, destroying several windows, and set fire to a newspaper distribution truck. They also drove a truck into the gates of the building's parking lot, damaging several vehicles belonging to the newspaper's employees.
On 11 August, a Globovisión news crew was attacked outside the vice president's office in Caracas by government supporters while covering a meeting on the recall referendum between government officials and international observers. Reporter Ana Karina Villalba and technicians Tony Vergara and Juan Camacho were stopped by some 15 men carrying pipes, spray cans and firearms, who partially destroyed their vehicle, smashing all of its windows. Both Camacho and Vergara were robbed of their valuables, including money, mobile phones and identification cards, as well as some of their broadcasting equipment. National Guard troops, who were stationed nearby, failed to intervene, the journalists said.
Apart from verbal and physical aggression, Venezuela's journalists were also confronted with a barrage of litigation during the year.
Court cases were brought against several journalists, including Ibéyise Pacheco of El Nacional, who was sentenced on 25 May to nine months in prison by Caracas's Eleventh Court for defaming an army colonel, Ángel Bellorín. The court ruling also ordered El Nacional to publish the sentence in its entirety and Pacheco to cover the costs of the trial. The charges stemmed from a 15 June 2001 story in her column, "En Privado" (In Private), in which Pacheco alleged that Bellorín had altered a grade in order to pass a law school course. Pacheco said she would appeal the sentence.
On 22 March, Patricia Poleo, editor of the Caracas daily El Nuevo País, received a summons stating that she was being charged with instigating rebellion and defaming the National Armed Forces after publicising a videotape that allegedly showed a group of Cuban nationals inside facilities of the National Guard's Sixth Regional Command.
In November, a complaint was brought against journalist Manuel Isidro Molina of the weekly La Razón for defaming the National Armed Forces in a 7 November article alleging that retired air force colonel Silvino Bustillos, who disappeared on 1 November, had been tortured and killed by the military intelligence service (DIM) in Caracas. Although Molina published a correction after Bustillo reportedly telephoned his family and informed them that he was well, but in hiding, the journalist faced three to eight years in prison, if convicted, under Article 505 of the Military Justice Code.
The legal and administrative harassment of the four main television stations, Globovisión, RCTV, Televén and Venevisión, whom Chávez has dubbed the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," also continued in 2004.
In March 2003, the National Tax Service (SENIAT) had announced that it was investigating the four stations in connection with political announcements they transmitted during the 2002-2003 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 said at the time.
On 18 March 2004, Globovisión, RCTV, Televén and Venevisión were informed that they were being fined by SENIAT. The fines, amounting to more than US$ 2,000,000, were imposed because the stations had broadcast free of charge political advertisements endorsing the general strike, SENIAT said. According to SENIAT, Globovisión must pay US$ 1,145,830 in fines, RCTV US$ 1,041,660, Venevisión US$ 781,250 and Televen US$ 302,080. Marcel Granier, president of Grupo 1BC, which owns RCTV, said his company would initiate legal action in response to the SENIAT sanctions, which limited the right of Venezuelans to use media outlets to freely express themselves.
In another worrying development, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled on 27 July that mandatory membership in a journalists' association did not violate freedom of speech and that it was fully within the powers of the legislature to establish such a requirement. The decision declared a 1995 constitutional challenge against various articles of the 1994 Law on the Practice of Journalism to be unfounded. The Law on the Practice of Journalism requires a university degree in journalism, communications or the equivalent from a Venezuelan university and membership in the National Association of Journalists. The law also imposes jail terms of between three and six months for those "who practice journalism in an illegal manner."
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