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Report presented by the Venezuelan Newspaper Association at the IAPA 60th Annual Assembly

VENEZUELA

In Venezuela the situation of freedom of speech and press freedom -as well as the legal guarantees for their exercise- is closely linked to the highly complex and critical circumstances facing the country's institutions and politics.

Since the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela -which introduced the concepts of "right to answer" and "veracious information"- was enacted in 1999, freedom of speech and press freedom have been systematically infringed by the state. Since then, the country's private media, their editors and journalists have been subject to damages, including life-threatening attacks, as well as assaults jeopardizing their physical integrity and their right to work.

Since 2001, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has adopted 12 resolutions in connection with the Venezuelan case -while the Inter-American Court on Human Rights has published four decisions in this connection. Both institutions have issued precautionary and interim measures intended to protect the right of more than 19 journalists and ten (10) media. The government has, however, disregarded these actions. And, with support from the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), the Venezuelan administration has argued that the moves the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights has adopted to protect the Venezuelan press are non-binding.

The TSJ's Constitutional Chamber, in a ruling dated December 18, 2003 -and after deciding that "contempt laws" were to be enforced to punish journalists whose reports or columns offended government officials- declared that: "If any international organization legally accepted by the Republic protects somebody in violation of the human rights of a group or persons in the country, such a move shall be rejected even though it is adopted by international human right organizations."

According to the ruling, "the recommendations from international organizations, particularly from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are not compulsory" and "freedom of speech is not an absolute right of the human beings."

A presidential recall referendum on Army lieutenant colonel Hugo Chávez Frías was held last August 15. He survived the election, according to the results published by the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is openly controlled by his followers.

César Gaviria, who recently left the Secretariat General of the Organization of American States, has said that Chávez' administration has from now on the right to move forward with its political project, but always observing the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Chart. In this sense, Gaviria has made a recommendation to the Venezuelan government: "think twice of the risks involved in increasing the number of judges of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice." This initiative was sponsored by the government and passed by pro-government parliamentarians at the National Assembly to exercise a definitive political control over the Judiciary Power.

In a final statement, Gaviria shares a view with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter: "the government has been consolidating its control over all of the public powers," a warning related to what Venezuelans fear the most.

Under these circumstances, the government has announced plans to pass the so-called Radio and TV Social Responsibility Law -inspired in the principles of a widely known ruling from the TSJ's Constitutional Chamber and intended to spread state control over the media.

The Venezuelan Communication and Information Minister is holding technical meetings to promote this legislation, which contains anti-democratic precepts.

a) Contrary to the Constitution, the Radio and TV Social Responsibility Law is to be passed as an ordinary law rather than an organic law, in which case it would have to be approved by a qualified majority in Parliament -just like any human right legislation.

b) The law provides for previous censorship and grants the government the faculty to suspend, without any previous legal action, radio and TV programs anytime it believes such programs are an attack against public order or national security. Such suspension is to remain in force until the controversy is solved.

c) The law prohibits broadcasting -from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.- any program or news show containing moderate violence. For instance, the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City or any confrontation between demonstrators and police officers.

d) Commercials produced abroad shall not be transmitted on the Venezuelan media.

e) Any piece of information contrary to the veracious and impartial information shall not be transmitted.

f) Educational, state-monitored programs shall be mandatory.

g) Sixty percent of the media programs shall be domestic, and government-authorized independent producers shall produce sixty percent of the domestic programs.

h) The media and their directors shall be held jointly and severally liable for the expressions of any person appearing live in any show.

i) Finally, among other restrictions, the government may, at its sole discretion, make use of 70 minutes a week for its own transmissions in the country media.

Other events that have affected press freedom
 
Army General in Chief Jorge Luis García Carneiro, Venezuelan Defense Minister, has called the media enemies of the government and claimed that they are supporting armed paramilitary movements. The Venezuelan Press Association categorically rejected these affirmations.
 
Pro-government parliamentarian Iris Varela proposed to annul the Venezuelan nationality granted to foreign journalists opposed to the regime. Meanwhile, Jesús Pérez, the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister, stated that journalists sow hatred and discord. Besides, Francisco Carrasquero, president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), has threatened to close the media if they violated the rules of a recent electoral campaign.
 
El Universal newspaper has recently been attacked again by the Venezuelan President, showing the regime's deep contempt for freedom of speech. On September 26, during his weekly radio and TV show "Hello, President," Chávez once again attacked editor Andrés Mata and his newspaper. According to Chávez, Mata "has no motherland; he plays the game of foreign interests determined to take over Venezuela." Chávez' attack came after El Universal published a statement by pro-government CNE director Jorge Rodríguez that he is to put in jail anyone who talks about vote fraud, as well as a statement by renowned Venezuelan constitutionalist lawyer Tulio Alvarez, who reported a significant number of claims and pieces of evidence questioning the results of the August 15 presidential recall vote. During his radio and TV show, Chávez ordered his acolytes to bring him a trash can and he he threw in a copy of El Universal newspaper, vociferating that he was putting El Universal "in the dump of history," together with "Mr. Mata" and "everything he represents."

On the other hand, judiciary terrorism has intensified, as judges lack autonomy and are openly linked to the government. This situation has been repeatedly reported by both the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights and the OAS Secretariat. Judiciary terrorism has also aggravated since the Supreme Court of Justice's Constitutional Chamber issued rulings 1013 and 1942 encouraging attacks and restrictions against freedom of speech.
 
In this sense, there have been some emblematic cases, such as the criminal case Army Colonel Angel Alberto Vellorí filed against journalist Ibéyise Pacheco, who was condemned to nine months in prison for exercising her duty to inform. Pro-government parliamentarian Juan Barreto sued journalist Miguel Angel Rodríguez, at TV network RCTV. Vladimir Villegas, president of the official TV station Venezolana de Televisión sued journalist Nelson Bocaranda; and the National Armed Force has filed an action against journalist Patricia Poleo charging her with insult against the military force.
 
A military court recently convicted retired Army Brigadier General Francisco Usón, who was Finance Minister under Chávez administration, to serve a five-year prison term for he expressed a technical opinion during a TV show moderated by journalist Marta Colomina. The show addressed an hypothesis that several soldiers arrested at the Fuerte Mara military base, in western Zulia State, had been burnt with a flamethrower, which left six soldiers injured and two other dead. Usón was asked to explain the operation of a flamethrower. Usón, who was a retired military officer at the time, was convicted to five years in jail for insulting the National Armed Force.

Other attacks
 
During the verification process of the signatures collected to demand a recall referendum on president Hugo Chávez' mandate, the editor in chief of La Voz de Guarenas, Emilio Materán, was arrested together with journalists of local TV station Televen. Journalists that suffered physical aggression include Marta Palma Troconis of TV news station Globovisión and her cameraman Joshua Torres; Najhla Paola Isaac, and Ivonne Andara Berrío -the latter directly attacked by a mob of more than one hundred people led by Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal and pro-government congressman Juan Barreto.

In addition, the headquarters of El Nacional daily, Así es la Noticia newspaper, TV station Radio Caracas Televisión, and TV Guayana were attacked by violent groups supporting Hugo Chávez' government.  Journalists of TV Guayana and Globovisión suffered these attacks. Armed, masked people set on fire a van and a TV camera owned by Venevisión in Zulia state, western Venezuela.

On May 11, Directorate for Military Intelligence (DIM) officers attacked journalist Félix Carmona and photographer Jorge Santos, both of El Universal newspaper. Later, the military officers seized equipments of La Verdad daily and TV station Globovisión, which were covering the well-known case of the Colombian paramilitary troopers arrested in the outskirts of Caracas. On September 4, the bodyguard of journalist Patricia Poleo was tortured and assassinated, a crime that led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to order precautionary measures.
 
The editor in chief of Diario El Mundo, Francisco Bautista, nicknamed Kiko, resigned to his post under pressures from the government.
 
On the other hand, contrary to the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR), the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ruled on July 27 that the compulsory registration of journalists with their professional association does not infringe the exercise of freedom of speech and that the National Assembly is empowered to demand it.

Translated by Maryflor Suárez


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