Attacks on press freedom by President Hugo Chávez continued but did not involve acts of repression. His intimidatory policies took new forms however, including a threat to withdraw one TV station's broadcasting licence, a threat of a tax investigation of a press group and a proposed law to curb the media.

President Hugo Chávez continued his attacks on the media in 2001. In February, describing himself as close to the poor, he accused "a group of four or five people who have accumulated money and media power over the years" of leading a "conspiracy" not to report on his government's successes. At a ceremony a few days earlier, he had shouted: "Down with journalists and capitalism." In January, he charged that Miguel Henrique Otero, managing editor of the daily El Nacional, was playing into the hands of "perverted interests" after the journalist had accused him of building up personal power. The media, which has become virtually the only voice of regular opposition after the eclipse of the traditional political parties discredited after 40 years in power, responded by joining a general strike on 10 December against Chávez' policies led by employers and trade unions.

Media chiefs agreed however with Teodoro Petkoff, managing editor of the daily Tal Cual, that "the highly intolerant talk of Chávez fortunately did not lead to actual repression of the media." But new threats were brandished against various media in 2001. The TV station Globovisión was threatened with cancellation of its broadcasting licence for having put out a false news item, which it immediately rectified. The president also threatened to take action against the Capriles media group for suspected tax evasion. Since April 2001, a new law to regulate the content of radio and TV broadcasts has been in the air.

The workings of the legal system was another cause for concern. In two cases involving the press, appeals against court decisions were made to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on grounds they violated journalists' rights. The notion of "timely, truthful and impartial information" guaranteed by the new national constitution adopted in December 1999 on the initiative of the president, continues to hang ominously over the media. The supreme court defended it on 12 June in a ruling that deprived journalists of a right to reply after Chávez had attacked them in his Sunday broadcast "Aló Presidente," broadcast by the state-owned Radio Nacional de Venezuela.

Journalists attacked

Several journalists were attacked on 21 November 2001 as they were covering a clash between opponents and supporters of President Chávez' government. Two of them, David Pérez Hansen, a reporter for the Caracas station RCTV, and a cameraman from the national station Globovisión, were beaten by the demonstrators.

Pressure and obstruction

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) called on the Venezuelan government on 8 February 2001 to take steps to ensure the freedom of movement and expression of Pablo López Ulacio, managing editor of the weekly La Razón. The authorities refused to comply, saying it was "an attempt to interfere in Venezuela's internal affairs." López Ulacio had fled to Costa Rica after a judge in August 2000 ordered him to be put under house arrest for refusing to attend his trial for "defamation" of the firm Multinacional de Seguros, which he had accused of abuses in obtaining government contracts. His lawyer said he had fled the country because of lack of "minimal guarantees of impartiality by the legal authorities," due to what he said were close ties between the firm's owner, top legal officals and President Chávez. In June 2000, another judge had banned the paper from running articles about Multinacional de Seguros.

The daily "Responda, Mundial pregunta" programme on the publicly-owned YVKE Mundial was suspended on 18 May for unexplained reasons. The programme's presenter, Fernando Silva, said it was because of his revelations about allegedly fraudulent contracts involving Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña, a former Chávez cabinet minister.

Fire broke out on 25 May at the premises of the daily La Opinion, in San Carlos (Cojedes state, 300 km southwest of Caracas). Managing editor Rafael Oviedo accused the state governor, Johnny Yánes Rangel (mentioned as a successor to President Chávez), of ordering the fire to be started. He said the governor, whom the paper opposes, was trying to force La Opinion into bankruptcy by withdrawing all state advertising from it. The governor charged that Oviedo had set the fire himself and called for an enquiry to be set up.

During a televised Communist Party rally on 9 June, President Chávez accused some media of making false tax returns and said he would take legal action to "restore morality, reason and truth to journalism." The next day, in his regular programme "Aló Presidente," broadcast on Radio Nacional de Venezuela, he accused the Capriles press group, which publishes the dailies Últimas Noticias and El Mundo, of evading taxes.

During his "Aló Presidente" radio programme on 10 June, President Chávez announced that foreign visitors who showed disrespect in their statements to the media would be immediately deported. A few days earlier, Peruvian politician Lourdes Flores had expressed concern in the press about the prospects for freedom in Venezuela, comparing Chávez' policies with the drift towards authoritarian rule in Peru under former President Alberto Fujimori.

The supreme court rejected on 12 June an appeal by journalist Elias Santana, president of the Queremos Eligir organisation, for a right of reply on President Chávez' radio programme "Aló Presidente," broadcast by the state-owned Radio Nacional de Venezuela. Chávez had said in the programme on 27 August 2000 that Santana represented "a minute sector of civil society." The supreme court said Santana had no right of reply on the president's programme because he could express his views in two other media he had access to – the daily El Nacional, where he was reader's editor, and the Radio Capital station. The court also cited article 58 of the Constitution concerning the rights of citizens to "timely, truthful and impartial information." The court also backed pre-censorship in the case of "war propaganda" and of articles "that discriminate" or encourage "religious intolerance." The ruling said that when the right to information conflicted with another right guaranteed by the Constitution, the courts would decide the issue. On 3 July, the court confirmed its decision, which it said was "irreversible." A few weeks later, Santana and the Bloque de Prensa Venezolana, representing the country's media owners, appealed against the decision to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On 30 July, the Venezuelan representative at the IACHR, Herman Escarrá Malavé, resigned, saying he could not defend the supreme court ruling because it violated the national constitution and international law.

The Venezuelan telecommunications commission, Conatel, the public body that assigns broadcasting frequencies, told the TV station Globovisión on 18 October it would start an enquiry into the station's broadcast of "false news," meaning it could lose its broadcasting licence. At the end of September, the station had quoted a taxi-driver who wrongly said eight of his colleagues had been killed. When it realised the mistake, the station immediately broadcast a correction, but not before the news had sparked demonstrations by taxi-drivers in the capital. President Chávez said on 3 October that the incident was "no error, it was treason" and made a veiled threat to cancel the station's broadcasting licence "in the interests of the nation and of truth." By year-end, Conatel had made no decision on the matter.

A petition for a judicial review was presented to the supreme court in November against its dismissal a year earlier of charges against Ben Ami Fihman (managing editor) and Faitha Nahmens (a reporter) of the monthly Exceso. The publication's management said the new tactic showed the media was working under the threat of old legal actions against them being dug up and said it feared the petitioners would use their ties with the government to get a favourable decision. Fihman and Nahmens had been sued for libel by the family of a businessman murdered by hired killers and discussed in a June 1997 article. After three years of costly litigation for Exceso, the supreme court had dismissed the case on 18 October 2000 on technicalities.

Troops blocked streets around the Caracas offices of Así es la Noticia on 23 November while army commander Gen. Cruz Weffer, former Apures state governor Jesús Aguilarte and ex-beauty queen Betzabé Zárraga visited the paper to demand that managing editor Ibéyise Pacheco give them a right of reply. Pacheco had accused the general of massive expenditure when he was head of the government's Plan Bolívar 2000 to expand social welfare. She had also run articles about alleged affairs between the beauty queen and the two men. The same day, Marianella Salazar, an editorial writer on the daily Tal Cual and journalist with the radio station Jazz 95 FM, received a letter from Weffer demanding a "correction" of an allegation about him. Also that day, Marta Colmina, of Unión Radio, and Patricia Poleo, of the daily El Nuevo País, both in the capital, each received a letter from Gen. Melvin Pérez, commander of the Caracas garrison, asking for a chance to refute the claims of the two journalists that he was involved in abuses when he was in charge of implementing Plan Bolívar 2000 in Monagas state, 500 km east of Caracas. At a press conference on 28 November, three of the four journalists criticised the officers' efforts as aiming to intimidate their sources within the army.


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