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IAPA: Press freedom is seriously threatened in Venezuela

Annual report by Inter American Press Association

17.03.05 | Press freedom is seriously threatened in Venezuela and the situation is aggravated by the lack of independence of the branches of government, along with an official policy to control the content of all programs broadcast by the private radio and television network.

An illustration of the lack of institutional independence was the approval of the Organic Law of the Supreme Court by a simple majority, which is unconstitutional, supported by government legislators in the National Assembly. The law increases the number of justices on the court from 20 to 32. The new justices were named without competitive examination of their qualifications, eliminating the constitutional requirement for citizen participation.

At his inauguration, the new chief justice of the Supreme Court eliminated any possible doubt about the independence of his decisions or sentences, saying that “the media and journalists must serve the truth and only the truth,” and “any judge who rules against revolutionary principles will be dismissed and his decision will be overruled.”

In the same vein, another justice said publicly at the beginning of this year that “the journalist who uses a microphone or printing press to attack, insult or libel a citizen working for the state deserves the same punishment as a police officer who uses his standard issue weapon to kill a citizen without justification.”

The National Assembly approved by a simple majority the Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, or Gag Law, which, in effect, makes the private radio and television system part of the state, which controls its schedules, programs and content.

President Hugo Chávez, commenting on his new communications policy, said it seeks “to disseminate and contribute to the training and inculcation of the population with the values, ethics and ideology of the Bolivarian Revolution. To develop [a] strategy of dissemination and information in regard to the U.S. to neutralize elements of imperialist action against Venezuela [and] educate the population in the military principles of discipline, love for the fatherland and obedience.”

As a result of the Law of Content, the state not only can “expropriate” broadcast spaces for its own purposes, but it can suspend any radio or television program without a court order for alleged national security reasons, with no decrease in the administrative, civil and criminal penalties that can be imposed on those who violate the law.

The Assembly also approved an amendment to the criminal law to apply the punishments of the Gag Law to the written press and any citizen who dissents from the tenets of the Revolution.

The amendment to the Penal Code, in effect, not only codifies the well-known “contempt laws” to the fullest, but also “criminalizes” political and opinion dissent.

Article 297 (A) establishes that: “Any individual who uses false information disseminated by print, radio, television, telephone, e-mail or written flyers to attempt to cause or effectively causes panic among the public or maintains the level of anxiety will be punished with a two- to five-year prison sentence.”

Article 508 says: “Anyone who uses shouting or yelling, bells or other instruments, or noisy methods or exercises to disturb public meetings or citizens' work or rest will be punished by arrest for up to a month and a fine of up to 100 tax units, and, in case of a repeat offense, the sanction will increase from one to two months of arrest and a fine of 200 tax units.”

“If the offense is committed against the Executive Vice President of the Republic, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the National Assembly or state legislatures, the punishment can be three or four months of detention and the fine could be as high as 500 tax units.”

The Venezuelan Press Bloc publicly protested these laws as violating human rights and causing self-censorship.

After a series of meetings November 12 and 13 organized by his office, President Chávez described to his followers and officers of the armed forces the outlines of the “New Stage, New Strategy” of his revolution, which entails moving from the current stage of internal consolidation to the next state of external confrontation and export of the revolution.

To consolidate his power within the country, the president announced the creation, with the support of Cuban missions, of Internal Battle Units for social control of the population. He also ordered, in precise language, the pursuit and harassment of opposition figures to prevent them from reorganizing. “If we had not had a campaign of identity cards, before the recall referendum, we would have lost,” the president said, “because those people [the opposition] got 4 million votes.

“And that is when I began to ask Fidel [Castro] for help…and he told me, ‘Yes, I know something about this. Count on all my support.”

Concerning economics, Chávez said, “we are not proposing the elimination of private property…We have not gone that far. No, but no one knows what will happen in the future, the world is moving…This is not the time.”

General López Hidalgo , the defense minister, confirmed that the “New Military Thought” envisages asymmetric, or guerrilla, warfare. For that purpose the armed forces are being equipped with an eye toward their first mission, which the document on “The New Stage” describes as “development of defensive actions on the border area with Colombia …to implement Plan Colombia .”

The official document instructs governors and mayors to organize a popular military reserve, identifying every “patriot” in their areas as “a rifleman, sniper or grenade launcher.”

Chávez's words are not ambiguous nor are they just warnings. “We will use every possible strategy from a mobile defense front to confront the giant to an attack.”

The final objective was not hidden in the paper on “The New State.” So much so that Chávez himself announced to his followers that “the strategy of the revolution is to break this ‘Monroe-ist' axis dominated by the Pentagon and made up of Bogotá-Quito-Lima-La Paz-Santiago de Chile.”

The government has unleashed an open and shameless persecution to silence journalists and the media, even making use of the iron control it exercises over the Judicial branch and Pubic Ministry.

The residence of journalist Patricia Poleo was searched and a criminal case was brought to force her to hand over documents that supported her recent writings. She had reported that Prosecutor Danilo Anderson, who was murdered and declared a martyr of the revolution, was the victim of extortionists to whom he allegedly had ties. The same thing happened for similar reasons to journalist Tamoa Calzadilla who was criminally charged at the personal request of the national prosecutor, a former vice president under Chávez.

Rafael Poleo, publisher of the newspaper El Nuevo País , was detained recently at an airport in the interior of the country. It was alleged that there was an arrest warrant for him dating from 1991 in a case in which he had been pardoned in 1993.

Journalist Ibéyise Pacheco was also arrested after being tried for libel for having made a false report when she reported that an army colonel who supports the revolution had falsified the results of his university exams.

In another order, the most important television channels were ordered by the Communications Ministry to pay large fines because the government considered that they had published news that instigated the national strike from December 2002 to January 2003.

Journalist Napoleón Bravo was criminally charged and his television program was taken off the air because of government pressure. The television interview program of Marta Colomina whom the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Inter-American Court on Human Rights had protected with interim relief measures was also closed down. Journalists of the daily El Carabobeño , published in Valencia , Carabobo state, were arrested at Libertador Air Base where they were covering a demonstration called by President Chávez from Montevideo , Uruguay . The military personnel on duty alleged hat the journalists had taken photographs in a forbidden zone and forced them to erase the photos. They also had to sign a document stating that they would not repeat the alleged offense in order to be released.

The highest levels of the government urged William Lara, a government legislator and former speaker of the National Assembly, to file a criminal lawsuit against Tulio Álvarez, a constitutional lawyer who investigated possible electoral fraud by the government. This was considered an official retaliation. The lawsuit was based on an article by Álvarez in the newspaper Así es la Noticia , reporting a case of embezzlement that had harmed employees of the Savings Bank of the National Assembly when Lara was its administrator.



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