November 2005 Update

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez seems to enjoy disagreements with his peers! Recently, he argued with Mexico's President Vicente Fox over a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Zone proposed by the United States and supported by Mexico. After each recalled their ambassadors, the two continued to swap insults, causing consternation among other Latin American leaders.

Chavez's desire for conflict has not been lost on Venezuela's media, which has often been the target of the president's anger. The last half of 2005 saw a number of worrying press freedom violations involving the Venezuelan government and judiciary. These included a criminal investigation into a newspaper's reporting, the closure of a newspaper by the tax authorities and a suspended sentence for a broadcaster convicted of criminal libel.

In its July 25 edition, the Caracas-based daily El Universal wrote an editorial criticizing the criminal justice system and arguing that it was politicized, lacked autonomy and ineffective. The editorial also said that both the court system and the Attorney General's Office (AGO) had lost legitimacy. Responding to the article, the AGO issued a press release rejecting the claims and launching an investigation to see whether the editorial constituted a crime and exposed the judiciary to contempt.

On 24 October, officials at the National Customs and Taxation Office (NCTO) closed the newspaper offices of El Impulso in the city of Barquisimeto, evicting editorial and administrative staff. At 9:00 a.m., on the same day, armed offices closed the newspaper's offices in Caracas. Both offices were closed for 24-hours. El Impulso received a US$ 13,900 fine from the NCTO, apparently for flaws in its 2002 tax return. There have, however, been allegations that the real reason is the newspaper's reporting.

As a sign that descato laws continue to be used in Venezuela, on 2 November, broadcaster and lawyer Carlos Gibson was sentenced to 11 months in prison for libel and slander in Ciudad Guayana, state of Bolívar, southern Venezuela. As a first-time offender, Gibson's sentence was suspended. He was placed on probation and ordered to report to the Bailiff's office twice a month. The trial concerned accusations against a company owned by a notable businessman and aired on "Sin Bozal" ("Without a Muzzle") on the Maxim 99.5 radio station.

Elsewhere, there were concerns about access to information. There have been a number of recent cases where journalists have been prevented from entering public places by security guards. The places include hospitals and stadiums where reporters were attempting to follow-up on news stories. Other journalists have been insulted while covering protest movements.

El Globo photojournalist Gustavo Acevedo disappeared on 27 June and was found in a morgue 11 days later. Press freedom organizations were quick to express their disbelief that, in the age of fingerprinting, Acevedo's body was not identified immediately. News of his death led to press freedom organizations calling for an in-depth investigation and the need to combat impunity.

May 2005 Update

President Hugo Chávez's victory in the August 2004 presidential recall referendum has left him stronger than ever, while Venezuela's privately owned and largely pro-opposition media, which actively backed the campaign against Chávez, faces continued harassment.

On 2 December 2004, 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 2004, Chávez signed the controversial Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, commonly known as the Media Content Law, which he described as legislation ending "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. The law establishes an 11-person Directorate responsible for enforcing the law and determining punishments. Seven members of the Directorate are to be government appointees.

The passing of the Content Law sparked international criticism. IPI said the law "threatened journalists' ability to carry out their professional duties" and "compromised the public's right to information." 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."

Frequent verbal attacks by Chávez and other public officials - in February 2005, the Minister of Information and Communication, Andrés Izarra, publicly accused foreign and local journalists of spreading U.S.-sponsored disinformation - have contributed to a climate of hostility toward the media.

Apart from verbal and physical aggression, Venezuela's journalists were also confronted with a barrage of litigation. In November 2004, a complaint was brought against Manuel Isidro Molina of the weekly La Razón for defaming the National Armed Forces. In a 7 November article, Molina alleged that retired air force colonel Silvino Bustillos, who disappeared on 1 November, had been tortured and killed by the military intelligence service (DIM). Although Molina published a correction after Bustillo reportedly telephoned his family and informed them that he was well but in hiding, the journalist faces three to eight years in prison, if convicted, under Article 505 of the Military Justice Code.

In February 2005, Patricia Poleo, a columnist for the Caracas daily El Nuevo País, faced prosecution on charges of illegally obtaining and disclosing case documents and violating anti-corruption legislation. The Attorney General's Office said Poleo would be prosecuted for publicising confidential information in the investigation into the November 2004 murder of prosecutor Danilo Anderson. The government launched an investigation into the leak, which has been attributed to police officers. Acting on a court order, police raided Poleo's home on 28 January 2005, searched her computer, and took photocopies of documents that prosecutors allege were leaked. Poleo said that prosecutors were hiding information that could embarrass the government, and vowed not disclose her sources.

November 2004 Update

In August, President Hugo Chávez won the presidential recall referendum by a wide margin. The referendum was activated after the opposition collected signatures from 20 percent of the population. 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 in 2002-03, Chávez's referendum victory leaves him stronger than ever, while Venezuela's privately-owned and largely pro-opposition media, which actively backed the campaign to remove Chávez, face renewed verbal and physical attacks, as well as legal and administrative harassment.

The Chávez administration has already announced that the draft Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, commonly known as the Media Content Law, will be passed. Among other things, the law would give the government the authority to temporarily close television and radio stations that broadcast content that includes "incitement to war, disruptions of public order or crime," or promotes "threats to national security". In addition, the broadcasting of material that "promotes, supports or incites disrespect towards legitimate institutions and authorities" could result in the revoking of a station's broadcasting permit. The law also classifies images of a violent or sexual nature that cannot be broadcast between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Chávez and other public officials have 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 Gen. Jorge Luis García Carneiro accused the Venezuelan media of supporting paramilitary movements.
· Foreign Minister Jesús Pérez accused journalists of sowing hatred and division.

This aggressive rhetoric has contributed to a climate of hostility toward the media, in which frequent physical attacks against journalists by groups close to the government occur with impunity. One journalist, Mauro Marcano Ramos, was killed by two unidentified gunmen in the city of Maturín, Monagas state, on 1 September. A radio host and opposition politician, Marcano aggressively denounced drug trafficking and police corruption.

Apart from verbal and physical aggression, journalists are also confronted with a barrage of litigation.

Court cases were brought against several journalists, including Ibéyise Pacheco of El Nacional newspaper, who was sentenced on 25 May to nine months in prison for allegedly defaming an army colonel. In November, a complaint was launched against journalist Manuel Isidro Molina of the weekly La Razón for allegedly defaming the National Armed Forces in an article. If convicted, he faces three to eight years in prison.

In another worrying development, the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court ruled on 27 July that mandatory membership in a journalists' association does not violate freedom of speech and that it is fully within the powers of the legislature to establish such a requirement.

May 2004 Update

Relations between President Hugo Chávez and Venezuela’s privately-owned and largely pro-opposition press continued to deteriorate as the political atmosphere became increasingly polarised in 2003 and 2004.

In August 2003, 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.

In March 2004, several people were killed and numerous journalists injured as demonstrators targeted the media during clashes between opponents and Chávez supporters.

The private television broadcasters are overwhelmingly pro-opposition, actively supporting the campaign to have Chávez removed from power. Chávez, in turn, uses his own nationwide radio and TV programmes, both on state-run channels, to attack the media, accusing journalists of fomenting a coup and threatening to revoke the licenses of the main private TV stations.

On 18 March, the four main private TV stations were informed that they were being fined by the national customs and tax collection service (SENIAT). The fines, amounting to more than US$ 2,000,000, were imposed because the stations had broadcast political advertisements free of charge for groups that oppose Chávez.

Even before the political crises of 2003, the relationship between Chávez and the media was extremely adversarial. Ever since sweeping to power in February 1999, Chávez 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 April 2002 and rumours of another coup, he intensified his attacks on journalists, creating a climate of intimidation and hostility in which the independent media find it increasingly difficult to operate.

Many journalists have been verbally or physically attacked by groups close to the government, including the so-called "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 are also confronted with legal and administrative harassment, and proposals for new legislation that contradict international norms and treaties.

Two restrictive bills have passed first reading in the National Assembly.

Under the draft bill on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, commonly known as the Media Content Law, television and radio stations that broadcast content that includes "incitement to war, disruptions of public order or 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" would be considered a "very grave violation" of the law. Repeated violations could result in the revoking of a station’s broadcasting permit.

Another draft bill, the Organic Law of Citizen Participation, 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.

September 2003 Update

The independent media in Venezuela have found themselves in a fight with President Hugo Chávez and his supporters. As a result, the media have faced a variety of press freedom violations, from the use of violence and intimidation against journalists to the application of repressive legislation to close down media organisations.

In late September 2002, IPI and the Inter-American Press Association ("IAPA") undertook a joint mission to Venezuela to discuss the media situation in the country. The joint mission reported, "the deterioration of press freedom was the result of President Hugo Chávez’s frequent verbal attacks on the press… and the inefficiency of the authorities in investigating and punishing those responsible for crimes against journalists".

A November 2002 protest by CPJ highlighted the number of attacks made against journalists by the supporters of Chávez or the state security services. The letter addressed to the president said he should demonstrate his active support for press freedom by condemning all attacks on the Venezuelan press. One month later, in December, government supporters attacked two regional television stations, Televisora Regional del Táchira and Globovisión Zulia.

On 6 and 7 January, the Promar Televisión news crew and a cameraman working for RCTV came under attack in the country's central-western region where they were reporting. In a separate incident in Caracas, a television station vehicle was attacked by a group of President Hugo Chávez's supporters.

In other attacks, throughout the year, a news crew from El Tiempo were kidnapped by students, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the car of journalist Marta Colomina of Televén television and on 5 August an explosive device was lobbed into the parking lot of the TRT station.

Aside from violent assaults the authorities have also attempted to close down media organisations, pass intrusive media legislation and haul the media through the courts. On 4 February, officials of the National Telecommunications Commission ("NTC"), accompanied by members of the security forces, closed down Radio Amiga. One week later, the NTC fined Globovision for failing to pay its taxes.

Applying further pressure on the media, on 13 February, the "Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law" was approved in Parliament. Under the draft law, referred to as the "Contents Law", television and radio stations that broadcast "incitement to war, disruptions of public order, crime or promotes threats to national security" may be closed for up to 48 hours.

In June, the Supreme Court dismissed Globovision’s application to strike out several articles of the Telecommunications Law for their unconstitutionality. The television station had asked the court to strike down articles which allowed the authorities the right to withdraw licenses, suspend broadcasting signals and regulate content.

On 10 July, the Catia TV broadcast centre, located in Caracas' Lídice public hospital, was closed. A commission sent by the Caracas Metropolitan District Mayor's Office, accompanied by officials from the Caracas Metropolitan Police, closed the studio by putting a lock on the main door.

November 2002 Update

Since taking office in 1998, President Hugo Chavez has created a climate of intimidation and hostility in which the independent media find it increasingly difficult to operate. Journalists have been verbally and physically attacked, kidnapped, or forced into hiding. Others have been confronted with legal pressure, including charges of criminal defamation and libel.

The situation has not improved since the failed coup attempt in April. On the contrary, amid growing political tension and rumours of another coup d'état, Chavez, has renewed his attacks on the media. In early September, he described leading local media as "trash", accusing them of disseminating "lies, perversion and immoralities". He also said they were part of a conspiracy by his enemies to overthrow him.

An IPI/IAPA mission to Venezuela (21-25 September) concluded that Chavez's aggressive rhetoric is an incitement to physical violence against the press and the main cause for the deterioration of press freedom in Venezuela. On the day the delegation arrived in Caracas, armed pro-Chavez militants – so-called "Bolivarian Circles" – attacked a local private TV crew, smashing their car and stealing their equipment at gunpoint.

The most recent acts of violence against journalists occurred on 4 November, when Salvadoran journalist Mauricio Muńoz Amaya, a correspondent for the Associated Press Television News (APTN), was shot at while photographing the unrest at the National Elections Council (CNE) in central Caracas. The bullet, fired from a 9 mm pistol, hit Muńoz in the chest, who was not severely injured because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. It is unclear who fired the shot.

Muńoz was not the only journalist wounded in the unrest, which arose as Chavez supporters attempted to stop an opposition protest march from reaching the CNE building. Héctor Castillo, who works for several national newspapers, was kicked and beaten, and his camera stolen.

In April, Jorge Tortosa, a reporter for the daily 2001, was shot dead while covering violent clashes between Chavez supporters and opposition demonstrators in Caracas. According to witnesses, Tortosa was deliberately shot in the head by a military sniper firing from the roof of the City Hall. Another journalist, Jonathon Freitas, a photographer for the daily TalCual, was shot in the arm.

Apart from verbal and physical aggression against the press, the IPI/IAPA delegation noted that administrative measures, judicial decisions and proposals for new legislation that would contradict international norms were also a reason for concern. The delegation welcomed the commitment given to them by the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, Ivan Rincon, who said he would not allow any provisions detrimental to press freedom in the proposed Media Content Law, which is currently being discussed in Congress. But the group strongly condemned the Supreme Court's Decision 1013, which defines criteria for "timely, truthful and impartial information" and could be used to prosecute journalists for publishing information that is deemed "untruthful".

Finally, the eight so-called "security zones", decreed by the government and set up around Caracas's military bases, the presidential palace and state radio and TV headquarters, allows the government to ban protests when it sees fit and restricts the people's right to information, the delegation was told.


September 2001 Update
Face to Face with the President

A June 2001 decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which defines criteria for "timely, truthful and impartial information", has increased concern in Venezuela over freedom of the press and President Hugo Chávez's hostile attitude towards the media. The right to "timely, truthful and impartial information" was first included in Venezuela's 1999 Constitution, despite protests by domestic and international press freedom groups that the provision would grant the government the power to decide what "truth" should be disseminated. The Supreme Court's 12 June ruling could now be used to prosecute journalists for publishing information that is deemed "untruthful".

Decision 1013 of the Supreme Court came in response to a petition filed by Elías Santana, columnist for the national daily El Nacional and coordinator of the civic group Queremos Elegir ("We Want to Choose"). Santana filed the petition to assert his right to reply after President Chávez criticized both the journalist and Queremos Elegir on his national call-in radio show, "Aló, Presidente", and refused to take Santana's 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."

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" clause if a majority of its columns and editorials followed the same ideological tendency but the publication did not declare that ideology explicitly.

Local and international press freedom advocates condemned the Supreme Court's ruling, which codifies the constitutional right to "truthful information" and opens 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.

Consolidating His Power

President Hugo Chávez Frías, a former paratroop officer who led a failed military coup in 1992, swept to power in December 1998 on a left-leaning nationalist platform. Highly popular among Venezuela's poor majority, he lead a fierce campaign in support of a new constitution, the centre of his radical reform plan for ending the country's political and economic crisis, improving the standard of living and cleaning up corruption. Along the way, he alienated important sectors of society – including church leaders and the business elite – and frequently criticized domestic and foreign media for "distorting" his proposals for reform.

Chávez scored a decisive victory on 15 December 1999 when the new 350-article Constitution was overwhelmingly approved by Venezuelans in a national referendum. However, while Chávez said the new constitution would strengthen democracy and eliminate widespread corruption, his critics claimed that it concentrated too much power in the presidency and contained numerous controversial articles, including Article 58, which states that "everyone has the right to timely, truthful, and impartial information."

Even before the 1999 Constitution was approved – while the National Constituent Assembly was still debating whether to include the right to "truthful information" in the new constitution – IPI and other press freedom organizations denounced the provision as a 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 "truthful information" article threatened the Venezuelan people's right to information, since the government could conceivably use it to censor the media by restricting information it deemed to be untruthful or partisan, they agreed.
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 reform plan has 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 2000.

All the President's Media

Since taking office, relations between Chávez and the privately-owned and largely pro-opposition press, which he says is controlled by "corrupt oligarchs," have continued to deteriorate. Venezuela's journalists complain about the president's display of disrespect for the media and his frequent verbal attacks on the press, while Chávez maintains that the media is "unfair" and "distorts" news.

To counter what he considers unfair media coverage, Chávez launched his own daily newspaper, El Correo del Presidente, published and financed by the government. Chávez is listed as editor-in-chief. To communicate directly with his supporters, he also started a weekly call-in radio show, "Aló, Presidente", in which citizens can talk to their president live on air, and a similar twice-monthly TV show, "Cara a cara con el Presidente ("Face to Face with the President"), both on state-run channels. In addition, he launched The President's Post, a weekly English-language version of his daily newspaper, for sale abroad.
Chávez frequently uses his programmes to attack journalists who oppose his "peaceful people's revolution". Speaking on his radio show in November 1999, he accused the publisher of the leading national daily, El Universal, of orchestrating a campaign "against the approval of the constitution" and "against social justice and progress." When an editorial critical of Chávez appeared in The Washington Post in November 2000, the president accused the editor of El Universal, Andrés Mata Osorio, 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."

Chávez has also used his public broadcasts to attack foreign media. He accused The New York Times of publishing "gigantic lies" and CNN of distorting news about a summit meeting of the Organisation Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which was hosted by Venezuela in September 2000. Chávez has even threatened to expel foreigners who insult Venezuela, his government, or himself. "We are not going to accept them doing it any more right here in our own house," he said in radio and TV broadcasts in June 2001. "Everything has its limits, countries deserve respect."

On 9 February 2001, Chávez 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 prime-time 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 are required by law to pre-empt their regular programming and transmit these national broadcasts (sometimes two or more hours) in their entirety. In addition, every TV station must 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.

Parts of the telecommunications law enacted in June 2000 have also been a cause for concern, in particular Article 209, which establishes that the president can suspend broadcasts "when he judges it convenient to the interests of the nation, or when required for reasons of public order or security."

A Climate of Hostility

Soon after taking office, Chávez announced that he would take reprisals against those media that criticise his administration. In one statement, he declared that "they'll get as good as they give." In another, he urged Venezuelans "to unchain themselves from the dictatorship they [journalists] represent.

Chávez's aggressive rhetoric – he has called journalists "corrupt", "anti-social", "unpatriotic", "enemies of the rule of law" and "professional deceivers" – has contributed to a climate of intimidation and hostility towards the press in which self-censorship is becoming widespread. Public officials, particularly in the interior, have begun to imitate Chávez's aggressive style when referring to the media.

Moreover, the president's frequent public diatribes are an incitement to physical violence against the media, according to journalists. 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. There have also been instances of bomb threats. On at least two occasions, explosive devices were discovered and de-activated on the premises of newspaper companies. In February 2000, anonymous leaflets were distributed throughout the national capital Caracas calling journalists "enemies of the revolution" and identifying certain journalists by name. In September of the same year, a paid advertisement appeared in several newspapers, attacking journalists by name and signed by a group called the New Bolivarian Front.

One of Chávez's first "casualties" was Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the daily El Mundo, who resigned under alleged government pressure in December 1999. In an editorial, El Universal noted, "The high power of State conspired to liquidate the free exercise of democracy. ... What other aggression do we need before we become alarmed?"

Another prominent casualty was TV host Napoleón Bravo, whose popular programme, "24 Horas", was cancelled in May 2000 as a result of alleged government pressure on the owners of the private TV station, Venevisión. (Bravo and "24 Horas" have been back on the air since June 2001).

Allegations of government pressure against the media continued in 2000 and 2001. Wire-tapping of media outlets is a common practice and state security agents routinely follow journalists.

One journalist, Pablo López Ulacio, editor-in-chief of the Caracas-based weekly La Razón, has been forced into exile in Costa Rica. He 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 President 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 was 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.

Two other journalists went into hiding in February 2000 after a Caracas judge ordered their arrest for disobeying a summons to answer criminal defamation charges they claimed were no longer legally valid. The charges against Ben Ami Fihman and Faitha Nahmens, editor and reporter, respectively, for the monthly Revista Exceso, dated back to a June 1997 article on 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, and Judge Miroslava Bonilla dismissed the case in September 2000.

On 3 January 2001, 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.

The Beginning of the End?

Despite President Chávez's policy of aggression towards the media, Venezuela's independent media, in particular the print press – there are two major national dailies and several regional publications – continue to publish critical attacks on the President and his government. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court's June ruling on "timely, truthful and impartial information" will lead to open censorship and the much-predicted end of press freedom in Venezuela. Unfortunately, remarks by some officials that the government is considering taking advantage of Decision 1013 to pass new press legislation do not bode well for the future.

For more information on Venezuela contact:
Michael Kudlak (IPI)
Tel: + (43 1) 512 90 11
Fax: + (43 1) 512 90 14

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