Area: 910,050
Population: 26,749,000.
Language: Spanish.
Head of state: President Hugo Chávez Frías.

A journalist was killed by a bogus policeman during a demonstration and a score of others physically attacked, especially in the run-up to the 3 December presidential election. Relations between the government and privately-owned media outlets are still tense, although prosecutions of journalists rarely produce results.

The easy reelection of President Hugo Chávez on 3 December 2006 raised fears of new tensions between his government and the privately-owned media, often accused of taking part in a failed attempt to overthrow Chávez in April 2002. Tension is still high nearly five years later but the record was better than expected in 2006, despite the death of one journalist and a score of physical attacks on others.

The spate of laws pushed through by the government in 2004 and 2005, greatly curbing press freedom, began to be applied during the year after being little used until then. A Caracas court on 23 January accused 10 media outlets, including two state-owned TV stations, Canal Metropolitano and Venezolana de Televisión, of "obstructing justice" and banned them from broadcasting anything about the investigation into the November 2004 murder of Judge Danilo Anderson and from citing the name of a key witness. The move was based on the November 2004 broadcasting media social responsibility law than can fine offending media outlets between 1 and 2% of their previous year's income. An appeal against the decision by the national media workers' association was rejected on 14 February.

The March 2005 criminal code reform law, which increased penalties for "insulting" public authorities and institutions, has been used more as a warning than a punishment. It was applied for the first time in 2006 against Ibéyise Pacheco, of the daily El Nacional and a harsh critic of the government who had accused a soldier of falsely obtaining a lawyer's certificate. Pacheco was convicted and put under house arrest on 15 March but after apologising to the soldier was freed a week later. Legal action against her for "inaccurate information" after she claimed in print that a plot against the opposition had been hatched in the presidential palace, was dropped on grounds of "insufficient respect for the rights of the defence."

Prosecution of Napoleón Bravo, formerly with TV station Venevisión and now with Unión Radio, for "insults" was also dropped on 16 May after three months. Prosecutor-general Isaías Rodríguez asked the high court to rule on the constitutionality of 25 articles of the new criminal code. The ruling is still awaited.

The fight against impunity advanced with the arrest of drug trafficker Ceferino García, suspected mastermind of the murder of Mauro Marcano, presenter on the station Radio Maturín 1.080 AM and columnist for the daily paper El Oriental, on 1 September 2004 in the northeastern town of Maturín. But the investigation did not touch senior police and army officers in Monagas province suspected of links with drug-traffickers.

The calmer judicial atmosphere contrasted with routine violence against journalists and a score of them were physically attacked and attempts made to censor others during the presidential election campaign, both by supporters of Chávez and those of his rival Manuel Rosales, governor of the northwestern province of Zulia.

Journalists were victims of the still-high level of lawlessness. Jorge Aguirre, a photographer with the Caracas daily El Mundo, was killed on 5 April, by a man in uniform on the edge of a demonstration. A former policeman, who was pretending to still be one, was quickly arrested.


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