Freedom of speech has been gravely threatened in recent months by violations jeopardizing the effective exercise of democracy and the rule of law. The media, publishers and journalists continue their work out of courage and civic duty, since journalism cannot be practiced without dangerous consequences. President Hugo Chávez's well-known intimidation, insults and injury of publishers and journalists on weekly radio and television broadcasts have crossed over into systematic incitement of hatred and direct instigation of mob violence against journalists. Now he directs his supporters - members of the government-backed Bolivarian Circles - to lynch journalists and their property in word and deed against under circumstances never before seen. Recent weeks have seen the rise of "people's courts" led by supporters of the so-called "Bolivarian Revolution." With the president's protection they take it upon themselves to "try" those whom they consider to be counterrevolutionaries, especially the owners of media outlets and journalists who have not gotten behind the practices and preachings of "Chavismo." Journalist José Domingo Blanco is one of their most recent victims. Official institutions have been unable to take clear and effective action to outlaw or punish these crimes, which violate the constitution and basic freedoms, since the government authorities are clearly under the control of the president's inner circle and do his dictatorial bidding. Supreme Court Ruling 1013 protects the president's incitements to hatred and violence. Today it provides the ideological and legal basis for the government's efforts to silence the press. Another ruling from the Supreme Court's Constitutional Division eliminates the principle of double jeopardy, allowing closed civil, administrative, commercial, criminal and other cases to be reopened on alleged grounds of public interest or as a matter of law. This leaves all citizens, including publishers and journalists, in a legal limbo and makes them easy targets for blackmail by those in power. At the recent public hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the subject of the Venezuelan Press Block's complaint regarding Ruling 1013, the Government announced that it would enact a Content Law to put an end to the debate raised by the press. The Content Law would be a kind of compilation of the restrictions on freedom of speech contained in Ruling 1013. The president made reference to this law in his December 10 speech to the armed forces and in his January 9 speech to the National Assembly. For its part, the National Assembly has enacted a Telecommunications Act, effective immediately, as a stopgap measure until the Content Law is ready. The Telecommunications Act empowers the government, at its discretion, to close down radio and television programs it regards as contrary to the national interest, that is, the interest of the revolution. Meanwhile, under the implied threat of a Press Act, on January 17 the National Assembly resolved to "urge media owners to discuss and adopt, freely and autonomously, a Code of Ethics to govern their conduct." The Attorney General's Office and the Office of the Ombudsman have remained passive on these issues. The Attorney General's Office is responsible for bringing criminal charges to head off the escalating violence against journalists and publishers, but it is headed by a member of the president's inner circle who is currently his vice president. More than 80 percent of the judges in the court system are temporary appointees. Their future job security rests with the Supreme Court, which keeps them off-balance so they cannot act with autonomy and independence, and can be manipulated and directed by the administration. President Chavez's administration has 49 executive orders in its arsenal, all issued on a single day in 2001 under an Empowerment Act (Ley Habilitante) that overstepped the constitutional principle of privilege and the natural authority of the National Assembly, in a clear example of the breakdown of political institutions. These executive orders have been challenged in a number of cases before the Supreme Court's Constitutional Division on grounds that they violate basic rights such as property rights, the right to engage in collective bargaining and the right of assembly. The Court has not yet issued rulings in these cases. An IAPA mission and an earlier visit by the IACHR Executive Secretary in February both reached the conclusion that press freedom was nonexistent in Venezuela. In March Venezuelan publishers, television station owner and some journalists attended a working meeting at the IACHR plenary session. An IACHR visit to Venezuela in May for an on-site inspection was announced after the session. There was also a public hearing on Ruling 1013, at which the government representative confirmed the Content Law initiative and expressly dissented from the OAS's Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression - which correspond to those of the Declaration of Chapultepec - claiming that freedom of expression was a matter of national sovereignty. This year the IACHR asked Venezuela for interim relief on behalf of the newspapers El Nacional and El Universal, and the television stations Radio Caracas, Globovisión and VeneVisión, to protect the lives, personal safety and property rights of journalists, senior managers and owners. The government has paid little more than lip service to these requests. The Judicial Operations and Restructuring Commission finally suspended the judge who heard the case of La Razón editor Pablo López Ulacio. López Ulacio was living in exile in Costa Rica after an order was issued for his detention, but the order was subsequently rescinded. Even so, López Ulacio has not been granted unconditional freedom. He is required to appear before a judge every 30 days and prohibited from making public statements about the criminal proceeding against him for exercising his freedom of speech. Given the national mood described in the opening of this report, López Ulacio cannot expect a fair hearing from an impartial judge. Far from coming to an end, government harassment and the president's affronts to the Catholic Church, the archbishop of Caracas, the archbishop of Mérida (who also heads the Venezuelan Conference of Bishops) and others have escalated. Legal action is still pending against these archbishops, as is the administrative proceeding to revoke the license of the bishopric's television station, Vale TV. Also noteworthy in this context is the Venezuelan president's affront to the apostolic nuncio of the Holy See after the nuncio stated the government should institute its policies in an environment of tolerance and respect. In October the National Telecommunications Commission instituted an administrative proceeding against the television station Globovisión to sanction it for reporting, in a live interview with a source, that nine taxi drivers had been murdered in the escalating criminal violence sweeping Venezuela. In November journalists Patricia Poleo of the newspaper El Nuevo País, Ibéyise Pancheco of the newspaper Así es La Noticia, Martha Colomina of the newspaper El Universal, and Marianela Salazar of the evening newspaper Tal Cual were threatened and intimidated by military personnel for publishing documents and reports implicating army generals in serious acts of corruption. The commandant of the National Guard opened a criminal investigation of Ibéyise Pancheco, editor of the newspaper Así es La Noticia of the El Nacional group. Five days later, on January 31, a bomb exploded at the newspaper's main entrance, one day after Ibéyise Pancheco and her fellow journalists listed above had released video of an unofficial meeting between Venezuelan military and members of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). On January 7 the Bolivarian Circles staged the violent demonstration at El Nacional that led to the requests for interim relief from the OAS, after president Chávez's national broadcast the day before, publicly insulting editor Miguel Henrique Otero and inciting his supporters to take Otero to task. On January 20 demonstrators with the governing Fifth Republic Movement party assaulted a group of Radio Caracas Televisión and Globovisión journalists. The OAS's January 24 requests for interim relief on behalf of El Universal, to protect its employees' lives and personal safety, did not prevent pro-government mobs from showing up at the newspaper again a few days later. Three El Universal journalists had been assaulted several days earlier: Roberto Giusti, Alicia La Rotta and Eugenio Martínez. On March 4 the publisher of the newspaper El Correo del Caroní and TV Guayana, who is also president of the Venezuelan Press Block, filed a complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor-General in response to serious threats and attacks on himself and his relatives by the national and regional government. The complaint stated that groups of Chávez activists trained by the so-called "tupamaros" under the individual known as Commandant Lina Ron were planning new violence against these media outlets, similar to what had occurred at the television station on February 5. This time the whole facility was to be destroyed and burned down. Armies national and municipal government tax collectors routinely descend on most television and print media both in and outside Caracas, more out of retaliation than tax considerations. Iribarren city hall staff injured reporters with the Caracas newspapers El Impulso and El Informador and damaged their equipment on January 19 as they were covering a function of Lara state educational authorities. The creation of the Bolivarian Circles is part of the president's strategy to neutralize his opponents, which began with the attacks directed by him in his weekly broadcasts over the past two years. In a December 17 speech Chávez told these violent groups that "2002 will be the great year of the offensive… and will be marked by a series of things that are going to happen." "Despite all risks and dangers, starting today the Revolutionary Movement 2000 will make the revolution grow stronger. And one of each revolutionary's chief duties is to defend the revolution from counterrevolutionary enemies. That is the great challenge facing this revolution, and we will meet that challenge or die trying. Anyone who shrinks from it is nothing less than a traitor." Thus, the revolutionary rhetoric has turned to mob violence, physical attacks and even blood. Lina Ron's mobs attacked the reporters, cameramen, equipment and vehicles of VeneVisión in the city of Maracay on February 3 and 17; Radio Caracas Televisión in Caracas on January 20 and February 19, 21 and 27; and Globovisión in Caracas on January 21. On February 21 Lina Ron violently broke up a peaceful anti-government student demonstration outside the office of the rector of Central University. After threatening to lynch employees of Radio Caracas Televisión, Ron and her mobs abused a journalist and seriously injured a cameraman from TeleVen. When detained later on a court order at the rector's request, Ron was publicly praised by president Chávez as "a social activist and patriot worthy of respect" on his March 10 radio program, during which he attacked newspapers in Spain and Colombia as hypocritical liars. On March 13 the government news agency Venpres sent the media an unusual message, informing them that from now on the government would refer to all counterrevolutionaries working in the media as narco-journalists. After noting that "Noriega may have fallen for failing to honor agreements with people close to former president Bush," the message goes on to say of Venezuela that "drug cartels cannot view the current government… as they did previous ones, which allowed them to come and go as they pleased." The message states that nothing is so effective at stopping the corruption of drugs as "alert, informed public opinion that supports, in a timely and truthful manner, an honest government" like that of Chávez. The government report then points to the vicious onslaught by journalists - among them Ibéyise Pacheco, Patricia and José Domingo Blanco - against senior military officers and top government officials as "a narco-journalism phenomenon that should be investigated." Writing for the government news agency, a certain J. Valverde warns that honors and awards by "certain foreign individuals and institutions to some degree influenced and controlled by drug cartels" are designed to "whitewash the conduct of our narco-journalists." Paradoxically, just a few days earlier journalist Patricia Poleo's work had been honored by King Juan Carlos of Spain.