Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October 2014, 16:06 GMT

Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Venezuela

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Venezuela, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566c3c.html [accessed 22 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The conflict between President Hugo Chávez Frías and the private media showed no signs of subsiding in 2003. In his weekly radio and TV call-in program "Aló, Presidente" (Hello, President) and in frequent speeches, Chávez continued to lambaste the private press and accuse media owners of being "coup-plotters" and "fascists." Chávez continued to use cadenas – nationwide simultaneous radio and television broadcasts that pre-empt all regular programming – and state-owned media to counter private news coverage, which remained heavily biased toward the opposition.

The political situation in Venezuela is defined by a polarization between supporters of Chávez, a populist president who has maintained considerable support among the poor, and his political opponents, who feel threatened by Chávez's agenda of radical reform. This crisis sparked an upheaval in the country several years ago that has more recently evolved into a political stalemate.

The private media continued to plunge into the political arena in 2003, unabashedly promoting the agenda of opposition parties while ignoring professionalism and balance. According to local sources, because opposition parties in Venezuela are either discredited or divided, the media have stepped in to fill the vacuum, becoming an extremely powerful source of government opposition.

In early 2003, while the country was engulfed in a nationwide, two-month general strike called by opposition forces and supported by private media, Chávez repeatedly threatened to cancel broadcasting concessions held by private television channels. In January and February, the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) launched administrative proceedings against the private channels Globovisión, RCTV, Televén, and Venevisión to determine whether they had violated media broadcast regulations. The channels could be fined or have their licenses suspended temporarily or permanently. Based on CPJ research, the proceedings, which remained pending at year's end, are based on telecommunications regulations inconsistent with international standards on freedom of expression and could foster a climate of self-censorship.

In October, Conatel confiscated Globovisión's microwave broadcasting equipment and opened new administrative proceedings into the 24-hour news channel's alleged use of unauthorized broadcasting frequencies. Globovisión rejected Conatel's allegations and said that, as a result of the confiscation, it could not broadcast live from outside its headquarters.

On October 3, the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an entity of the Organization of American States (OAS), issued precautionary measures in favor of Globovisión asking the Venezuelan government to suspend the proceedings and return the confiscated equipment. On October 24, the IACHR further requested that the Venezuelan government urgently guarantee Globovisión access to a simple and swift appeal process before impartial judges. However, in December, Conatel fined Globovisión 582 million bolívares (US$360,000) and kept the confiscated equipment. Globovisión announced it would appeal the decision to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), Venezuela's highest court.

In a worrying development, on July 15 the TSJ upheld several "contempt" and criminal defamation provisions in the Penal Code. The TSJ's Constitutional Chamber dismissed a March 2001 appeal filed by Rafael Chavero Gazdik, a lawyer who has written numerous articles on constitutional issues. Chavero's appeal claimed that Penal Code Articles 141, 148-152, 223-227, 444-447, and 450 violate the Venezuelan Constitution, as well as Venezuela's international obligations, particularly under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and information.

Articles 148-152 and Articles 223-227 include desacato (contempt) provisions, which criminalize expressions that are offensive to public officials and state institutions; Articles 444-447 and Article 450 address criminal defamation and slander; and Article 141 establishes criminal penalties for destroying the Venezuelan flag and other national symbols.

Chavero filed the appeal as a private citizen, a procedure that is legally available to all Venezuelans. He cited the IACHR's 1994 "Report on the compatibility of desacato laws with the American Convention on Human Rights," which argued that desacato laws contravene Article 13 of the convention because they restrict freedom of expression. He maintained that as an OAS member, Venezuela should repeal desacato provisions or amend them in accordance with international standards, as recommended by the IACHR report.

Chavero also asked the TSJ to repeal criminal defamation provisions or update them by introducing the "actual malice" standard in cases where the person offended is a public official or a public person. (The "actual malice" standard, first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, requires a plaintiff to prove not only that the offensive expression or published information is false, but also that the defendant knew or should have known it was false at the time the expression or information was disseminated.)

The TSJ ruling, written by Justice Jesús Eduardo Cabrera Romero, rejected Chavero's arguments and instead ordered that the wording of Articles 223, 224, 225, and 226 be amended slightly. Explaining his opposition to the repeal of desacato laws, Justice Cabrera maintained that state institutions could not stand defenseless against abuses of the right to freedom of expression, and that, at least in the context of Venezuela, desacato laws served as a barrier against such abuses.

In addition, the TSJ ruling found that Venezuelan laws are compatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. The tribunal stated that Articles 57 and 58 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which establish the right to freedom of expression and the right to information, offered broader protection to society as a whole than that provided under Article 13 of the American Convention, and, therefore, should be applied with preference. Furthermore, the TSJ's decision specified that the recommendations issued by the IACHR in its 1994 report were not legally binding.

After the ruling was delivered, Eduardo Bertoni, the IACHR's special rapporteur for freedom of expression, issued a communiqué decrying the tribunal's decision. Although the IACHR's recommendations are not legally binding, they represent the commission's interpretation of existing international law regarding freedom of expression.

The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, a controversial bill drafted by Conatel and introduced in January before the National Assembly by Chávez's ruling Movimiento Quinta República (MVR), was approved in committee. At the end of 2003, the law was awaiting a second debate by the full National Assembly, which is controlled by the MVR and its allies. While the government says the bill is needed to "establish the social responsibility" of television and radio broadcasters, the private broadcasting media view the bill as an attempt to muzzle them and as a way to impose censorship on the press. Although the bill was stripped of some of its most onerous provisions by the National Assembly's Science, Technology, and Media Committee, the legislation still contains broad restrictions that could affect the right to freedom of expression. The bill is also excessively punitive, local sources said. For instance, television and radio broadcasters that disseminate messages that "promote, defend, or incite a breach of the legal order in force" may be suspended for up to 72 hours. If a media outlet repeats the infraction within the next five years, its broadcasting concession may be suspended for up to five years.

In November, government and opposition representatives met with directors of private and state-owned media organizations to seek guarantees that their political advertising campaigns would have equal access. At the end of 2003, government and opposition representatives were collecting signatures for possible recall referendums on several legislative and presidential terms. The lawmakers were concerned about balanced coverage in the media.


2003 Documented Cases – Venezuela

JANUARY 20, 2003

Globovisión
Radio Caracas Televisión
HARASSED

Officials from Venezuela's Infrastructure Ministry notified Caracas-based private television stations Globovisión and Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) that the ministry had opened administrative proceedings against the two stations to determine whether they had violated media broadcast regulations. The ministry could fine the stations or suspend or revoke their licenses. CPJ research indicates that the stations are being targeted for their antigovernment and pro-opposition coverage.

Officials delivered letters dated January 17 and signed by Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello Rondón, who informed the stations that they were under investigation for allegedly violating Article 53 of the Radio Communications Regulations and Article 171.6 of the Organic Telecommunications Law. Globovisión and RCTV had 15 working days to present their defense.

In his letter to Globovisión, Cabello cited as evidence of the alleged violations statements by opposition leaders and rebellious military officers, as well as political advertisements by opposition groups, that were broadcast by Globovisión between October and December 2002. The letter also said that, after recording and analyzing Globovisión broadcasts, the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), an entity of the Infrastructure Ministry, had recommended that an investigation be opened. The individuals and groups that made the statements and the advertisements have not been charged with any crimes.

Article 53 of the Radio Communications Regulations forbids the broadcasting of speech that incites rebellion and disrespect of institutions and their authorities; of propaganda aimed at subverting public order; and of false, deceitful, or malicious signals and news. Article 171.6 of the Organic Telecommunications Law provides for, in addition to any applicable fines, the cancellation of the administrative authorization or concession to "anybody who uses or allows the use of the telecommunications services for which he is authorized as means to contribute to the commission of crimes."

From December 2002 to January 2003, President Hugo Chávez Frías repeatedly threatened to cancel the broadcasting concessions of private TV stations. This development in the conflict between Chávez and the media occurred in the context of a strike called by the largest labor union federation, the business association Fedecámaras, and the opposition umbrella group Coordinadora Democrática. Most Venezuelan media have actively backed the opposition and joined in supporting the strike. Amid an extremely polarized environment, both private and state media abandoned all pretense of objectivity and balance.

JANUARY 30, 2003

Televén
LEGAL ACTION

The Infrastructure Ministry began an investigation of Caracas-based private television station Televén to determine whether it had violated media broadcast regulations. The ministry could fine the station or suspend or revoke its license. According to CPJ research, the station was targeted for its antigovernment and pro-opposition coverage.

On January 30, ministry officials notified Televén that they had opened administrative proceedings against the station. Officials delivered a letter signed by Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello Rondón, who informed the station that it was under investigation for allegedly violating Article 53 of the Radio Communications Regulations; Articles 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, and 12 of the Partial Regulations on Television Broadcasting; and Article 171.6 of the Organic Telecommunications Law. Televén had 15 working days to present its defense. Once it has received the station's defense briefs, the ministry had 120 days to make a determination.

In his letter to Televén, Cabello cited as evidence of the alleged violations statements by opposition leaders and rebellious military officers, as well as political advertisements by opposition groups, that were broadcast by Televén between October 2002 and January 2003. Cabello also claimed that Televén had given special news coverage to an opposition strike and had broadcast political advertisements by the opposition in the 3 p.m to 6 p.m. time slot, which, under Article 11 of the Partial Regulations on Television Broadcasting, should be devoted to children's programming.

Cabello's letter also said that, after recording and analyzing Televén's broadcasts, the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), an entity of the Infrastructure Ministry, had recommended that an investigation be opened.

Article 53 of the Radio Communications Regulations forbids the broadcasting of speech that incites rebellion and disrespect of institutions and their authorities; of propaganda aimed at subverting public order; and of false, deceitful, or malicious signals and news. Article 171.6 of the Organic Telecommunications Law provides for, in addition to any applicable fines, the cancellation of the administrative authorization or concession to "anybody who uses or allows the use of the telecommunications services for which he is authorized as means to contribute to the commission of crimes."

From December 2002 to January 2003, President Hugo Chávez Frías repeatedly threatened to cancel the broadcasting concessions of private TV stations.

The investigation into Televén occurred in the context of a strike called by the largest labor union federation, the business association Fedecámaras, and the opposition umbrella group Coordinadora Democrática. Most Venezuelan media have actively backed the opposition and joined in supporting the strike. Amid an extremely polarized environment, both private and state media dropped objectivity and balance from their news coverage.

FEBRUARY 2, 2003

Narka Moreno, Catia Tve
Mayte Moreno, Catia Tve
ATTACKED

Narka and Mayte Moreno, two sisters who work as reporters for the community television station Catia Tve, were attacked by opposition supporters in the capital, Caracas.

The two journalists were in the working-class neighborhood of Catia reporting on a one-day campaign mounted by the opposition to collect signatures calling for a referendum on President Hugo Chávez Frías' rule. The campaign consisted of setting up stations – each guarded by a group of opposition supporters – throughout the country where people could go and sign a referendum petition.

According to Gabriela Fuentes, Catia Tve's journalism training coordinator, the two reporters were interviewing participants in the campaign near a signature-collecting station when they recognized several opposition supporters who were allegedly involved in violent clashes with government supporters on January 3. After the opposition supporters began staring at the two reporters, they decided to go across the street and film them with Narka's video camera.

At that moment, around 11 a.m., unidentified individuals threw a bomb at the signature-collecting station. In the confusion that followed, four opposition supporters assaulted Narka, who was taping the incident. The attackers tried to grab her camera, threw her on the ground, and started beating her. When Mayte came to help her sister, she was beaten and thrown on the ground. Several of Narka's fingers on her right hand were broken, and she suffered multiple bruises and had to wear a surgical collar for several days. Her video camera was stolen. Mayte suffered minor injuries.

The two reporters filed complaints before the Public Prosecutor's Office and the People's Ombudsman Office.

FEBRUARY 4, 2003

Ángel Véliz, Impacto
Víctor Arias, Impacto
Elsy Barrios, Impacto
ATTACKED

Reporter Barrios and photographers Véliz and Arias, all with the daily Impacto, based in the eastern state of Anzoátegui, were attacked at around 10:30 a.m. while covering clashes between striking oil workers and government supporters in the town of Anaco.

Earlier that morning, National Guard troops had arrested several strikers and government supporters involved in the clashes and had taken them to the guard's Anaco headquarters. Barrios and Arias followed, and, after a group of striking workers came to the headquarters and demanded that their colleagues be released, more clashes erupted between the workers and government supporters, who threw stones and sticks.

When Véliz arrived at the scene in a taxi, a group of government supporters beat and kicked him and grabbed his digital camera. Barrios told CPJ that, although she kept calling on National Guard troops to help her colleague, the troops did not take action for several minutes. Meanwhile, government supporters threw stones at Barrios, who was pregnant at the time. When Arias came to help Véliz and Barrios, pro-government demonstrators beat and kicked him and took his digital camera.

Véliz suffered bruises, cuts, and an injury to his right wrist that required 12 stitches. He was hospitalized, released on February 6, and returned to work the next day. Arias suffered minor injuries. Barrios was not injured. National Guard troops were able to recover the two cameras, but one of them was damaged.

Impacto Editor Denys Salcedo said the paper would file a complaint with the Public Prosecutor's Office, the Caracas daily El Nacional reported.

FEBRUARY 5, 2003

Venevisión
LEGAL ACTION

The Infrastructure Ministry began an investigation of the Caracas-based private television station Venevisión to determine whether it had violated media broadcast regulations. The ministry could fine the station or suspend or revoke its license. According to CPJ research, the station was targeted for its antigovernment and pro-opposition coverage.

On February 5, ministry officials notified Venevisión that they had opened administrative proceedings against the station. Officials delivered a letter signed by Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello Rondón, who informed the station that it was under investigation for allegedly violating Article 53 of the Radio Communications Regulations and Article 171.6 of the Organic Telecommunications Law. Venevisión had 15 working days to present its defense. Once it has received the station's defense briefs, the ministry had 120 days to make a determination.

In his letter to Venevisión, Cabello cited as evidence of the alleged violations statements by rebellious military officers that were broadcast by Venevisión late in 2002. Cabello's letter also said that, after recording and analyzing Venevisión's broadcasts, the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), an entity of the Infrastructure Ministry, had recommended that an investigation be opened.

Article 53 of the Radio Communications Regulations forbids the broadcasting of speech that incites rebellion and disrespect of institutions and their authorities; of propaganda aimed at subverting public order; and of false, deceitful, or malicious signals and news. Article 171.6 of the Organic Telecommunications Law provides for, in addition to any applicable fines, the cancellation of the administrative authorization or concession to "anybody who uses or allows the use of the telecommunications services for which he is authorized as means to contribute to the commission of crimes."

From December 2002 to January 2003, President Hugo Chávez Frías repeatedly threatened to cancel the broadcasting concessions of private TV stations.

The investigation of Venevisión occurred in the aftermath of a strike called by the largest labor union federation, the business association Fedecámaras, and the opposition umbrella group Coordinadora Democrática. Most Venezuelan media have actively backed the opposition and joined in supporting the strike, which ended on February 2. Amid an extremely polarized environment, both private and state media dropped objectivity and balance from their news coverage.

JUNE 27, 2003

Marta Colomina, Televén, Unión Radio
ATTACKED

Colomina, a journalist for the TV channel Televén and the radio network Unión Radio, both based in the capital, Caracas, was attacked by unidentified men while on her way to Televén's offices in the company of her bodyguard and her producer.

At around 5 a.m., a group of armed men in two cars intercepted her vehicle on Rómulo Gallegos Avenue, in eastern Caracas. The attackers, some of whom were wearing masks, threw a Molotov cocktail against her car's windshield, according to statements Colomina gave to Unión Radio. The explosive smashed the car's windshield but did not detonate. Amid the confusion, Colomina's bodyguard managed to back up the car and flee the scene. No one was injured.

At Televén, Colomina hosts "La Entrevista" (The Interview), a 6 a.m. show that airs Monday to Friday. The journalist also hosts a daily show at Unión Radio.

The attack occurred on Venezuela's "Day of the Venezuelan Journalist." Colomina, a fierce critic of President Hugo Chávez Frías, considered the attack an attempt to intimidate her and force her change her political stance, according to the 24-hour news channel Globovisión.

In March 2002, following threats against Colomina, the Washington D.C.­based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the Venezuelan government to adopt precautionary measures for the journalist, including offering her protections.

OCTOBER 3, 2003
Posted: October 7, 2003

Globovisión
LEGAL ACTION

Venezuela's National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) opened administrative proceedings against the 24-hour news channel Globovisión to determine whether Globovisión is violating telecommunications regulations.

Globovisión has 15 business days to present its defense to Conatel. The TV station has vigorously opposed President Hugo Chávez Frías and considers it is being targeted for its antigovernment coverage.

On October 3, Conatel officials notified Globovisión that the commission was investigating Globovisión's alleged use of unauthorized broadcasting frequencies. The commission also ordered the channel not to use the frequencies. According to Globovisión, the same day, Conatel officials came to two transmission stations in the capital, Caracas, and confiscated broadcasting equipment. Globovisión said that, as a result, it cannot broadcast live from outside its headquarters.

Conatel opened the administrative proceedings to discover whether Globovisión was illegally transmitting from unauthorized broadcasting frequencies, an allegation Globovisión denies. If found in violation of the regulations, Globovisión could be fined and/or it could lose the confiscated equipment.

Under Article 183 of Venezuela's Telecommunications Law, Conatel may order the preventive confiscation of broadcasting equipment if the commission believes it is being used for unauthorized activities. Information and Communications Minister Jesse Chacón has said that Globovisión "was using frequencies illegally."

On October 3, the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Organization of American States (OAS) that protects and promotes human rights in the Americas, issued precautionary measures in favor of Globovisión, ordering the Venezuelan state to return the confiscated equipment.

In the October 5 edition of his weekly radio and TV program, President Chávez said that Globovisión "was operating [the frequencies] without permission," as quoted by official news agency Venpres.

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