VENEZUELA Report to the Midyear Meeting Caracas, Venezuela March 28 - 30, 2008 The previous report noted that Venezuelans were strongly opposed to a package of constitutional amendments proposed by President Hugo Chávez as a way of perpetuating his hold on power. The report denounced the government’s intentions to get rid of the independent media, assault and intimidate journalists, eliminate freedom of speech, and undermine the right to inform and be informed. In a referendum held on December 2, 2007, the majority of the Venezuelan people decisively rejected the proposed constitutional change — and along with it the government’s authoritarian policies and its attempt to remove all term limits on the presidency. Nevertheless, the president’s control of all three branches of government has led to troubling interpretations of the Constitution, such as Ruling 1013 of 2001 (curtailing freedom of speech) and Ruling 1942 of 2003 (denying the validity of international human rights accords). The Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which was passed a few years ago, allows the government to control the content of broadcast media outlets. The Venezuelan Penal Code has been amended five times in the past seven years. Previous reports submitted to the IAPA by Venezuela, including at the latest General Assembly, denounced the fact that these amendments make it a crime to be a dissident or to “insult” government officials, as this is a serious threat to freedom of speech. A few days ago, the regime proposed amendments to 22 additional articles in the code. In early 2007 the National Assembly passed what is known as an “enabling law,” valid for up to 18 months, which grants the president legislative powers on certain matters and allows him to pass laws by decree. Even though his package of proposed constitutional amendments was defeated on December 2, President Chávez indicates he intends to decree measures into law that were rejected by the people in the referendum. The Casa Arturo Uslar Pietri Foundation obtained some documents used in the Ministry of Education’s curriculum for Venezuelan teachers, which define a basic pillar of the government’s entire education system as “the recognition of accurate, timely reporting from the alternative and mass media, which are tools for reinforcing a proactive, participatory democracy in which all of society is involved.” According to the foundation’s specialists, “this lamentable dogma imposed by the government on the educational system is at the core of education from preschool through high school, and this obviously damages our youth by attempting to discredit freedom of speech and envelop our future society in a terrible silence.” May 27 will mark one year since Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) was shut down and its broadcasting equipment seized by the government. The president had announced his politically motivated decision to shut down RCTV, the free, over-the-air broadcast station that was the country’s longest-running and most widely viewed channel. This closure was opposed by the vast majority of the Venezuelan people. Meanwhile, we continue to see court cases and rulings, administrative penalties pursued by the regime, and harassment targeting the Globovisión news channel. Failure to provide foreign currency in a timely manner for the importation of newsprint has been a persistent problem, even though newspapers are legally entitled to it under the exchange control system. This is jeopardizing the newspapers’ circulation. The Chávez administration has repeatedly refused to disclose information to media outlets not under his control. Independent journalists are also denied access to government sources and events controlled by government entities. The administration resorts to the reprehensible method of discriminating in the placement of its large volume of advertising as a way of pressuring and penalizing self-respecting media outlets that do not engage in self-censorship. Media outlets that unconditionally support the government are lavished with funds, as a way of bolstering what the regime describes as “the entire communications apparatus of the revolutionary process.” Another clear case of discrimination concerns advertising by Venezuela’s largest communications company, CanTV, and its cellular phone subsidiary, Movilnet, both of which were nationalized last year by the Chávez administration. For years these companies had advertised heavily in the newspaper Correo del Caroní. But with the precision that typifies the regime’s threats and attacks, all advertising from these companies ceased the day after they were nationalized. Other media outlets, especially those controlled by the government, ran large color ads that day with the telling slogan, “Ahora CanTV es de todos” (“CanTV belongs to everyone now”). The government now controls 85% of all television stations, 3,000 community radio stations, and 100 Web sites, according to a study directed by Adolfo Herrera, dean of the School of Communications at the Central University of Venezuela. Last year the Ministry of Communication and Information spent 3,465,000 bolívares to “strengthen alternative and community media outlets,” more than 1.5 million bolívares on equipment and accessories, and 152 million bolívares on “training for Venezuelan professionals by Cuban experts.” Communications specialists said in February that “the government’s takeover of the media to further its authoritarian political aims, the reduction of space for expressing a variety of ideas, and multiple restrictions on free speech are just some of the steps taken by the executive branch in the field of communications during the first nine years of the rule of Hugo Chávez.” According to a research study by the Commission on Political Participation and Election Campaign Financing, 69% of all programming on government-controlled radio and television stations prior to the December 2 referendum was in favor of the constitutional amendments proposed by the Chávez regime. Other significant developments: Acts of judicial terrorism against journalists — through lawsuits, prosecution and persecution — have aroused even more anger and made professionals even more determined to uphold their commitment to inform, investigate and denounce. On November 4, 2005, journalist Patricia Poleo was ordered to be taken into custody for allegedly “masterminding” the killing of a prosecutor. Under the charges Poleo would have been forced to remain in jail while the case was under investigation. She was convinced by her friends and colleagues to leave the country to escape torture, pressures and abuses. The government’s supporters — some out of conviction, others for convenience — devote themselves to denying the truth, concealing actual events, and attempting to break the ethical resistance of honest journalists and media outlets, in order to keep unfiltered news from reaching the people and to keep the people from realizing the historical failure of totalitarianism. The National Union of Press Workers issued a statement on February 28 expressing its “condemnation and rejection of the flagrant harassment of media outlets and their employees by pro-government forces.” Journalists Beatriz Adrián and Diana Carolina Ruiz of Globovisión and Francia Sánchez of RCTV Internacional were assaulted on October 16, 2007, while covering a session of the National Assembly at the Teresa Carreño Theater. On November 11, 2007, reporter Jorge Eliécer Patiño and photographer Luis Barrios of the newspaper Diario de los Llanos in the state of Barinas were beaten by police while covering a demonstration at a university. Police officers and civilians assaulted journalist Elvis Rivas of RCTV Internacional during a student protest in the state of Mérida on November 9. Gustavo Azócar, a journalist and on-air host for Televisora Regional del Táchira, was assaulted on camera during his morning program on November 20 by a ruling-party member of the National Assembly. News photographer José Cohen suffered a head wound while covering a peaceful student demonstration that was repressed by the Metropolitan Police and the National Guard on November 29. Cohen received 10 stitches for the wound. On December 5, President Chávez called Hernán Lugo García, a reporter for El Nacional newspaper, “excrement” for his article on Chávez’s defeat in the referendum. Cameraman Carlos Toro was hit and assistant Larry Arvelo suffered bruises and injuries caused by police while covering an accident for Globovisión Pro-government activists attacked journalist Ramón Antonio Pérez during a rally of the Copei party in Plaza Bolivar in Caracas. A pro-government group assaulted journalist Hugo Morales who was taking pictures of attacks on university students on January 22, 2008. Journalist María Teresa Guedez of the daily La Calle, photographer Clemente Espinoza, of the daily El Carabobeño, and the cameraman of RCTV Internacional were injured when violent pro-government groups entered and destroyed the Carabobo state Legislative Council on February 12 of this year. The wife of journalist José Rafael Ramírez announced that she was on a hunger strike on February 14 and chained herself to the courthouse doors of Aragua state to protest what she called “judicial abuses” of her husband. Ramírez has been held in La Planta Prison in Caracas for the past month, and during this time he has been on hunger strike. Twice he has been taken to the military hospital in a near-death state, only to be revived with intravenous fluids and returned to prison. This is a violation of his right to remain free while on trial. Pro-government activists insulted journalist Rafael Fuenmayor of Globovisión and accused him of “destabilizing the Chavez government” because he asked questions that displeased the pro-government group that took over the headquarters of the Caracas archdiocese last February 27. Journalists were not allowed to attend a regular session of the National Assembly’s Finance Committee on February 29. Journalists of the major newspapers of Carabobo state were beaten by pro-government groups while covering a meeting to support peace on the 6th of this month in Valencia. Two journalists of Argentina’s Canal 5, Melina Fleiderman and Andrés Montes de Oca, special correspondents covering the tour of President Cristina Kirchner, were detained by the National Guard near Miraflores Palace when they tried to record a demonstration against Chávez nearby. The National Press Workers Union says: “It is increasingly difficult for private sector journalists to do their work within a framework of respect for their work and within ethical and professional parameters. In a good number of agencies the immediate supervisors of the press secretaries are military personnel who do not know the basic principles of the practice of journalism, neither the law, nor the Code of Ethics. When they have objections they take reprisals.” On May 27, the government closed down RCTV television and used military force to seize its offices and transmission equipment. The television company has taken various legal actions, but none has had a favorable result. On March 26, the Political-Administrative Branch of the Supreme Court denied RCTV’s request on November 29, 2007 for an injunction which would have allowed it to return to over-the-air broadcasting., RCTV said that the procedural technicalities cited in the decision not to consider the allegations in its petition were not applicable in that case, and said it regretted “that the Supreme Court has once again lost the opportunity to repair the serious damage that taking our channel off the air has done to the Venezuelan people.” RCTV explained that this was not the definitive ruing in the case and said it will continue its effort to have the Supreme Court’s final decision reestablish the rule of law and restore on-the-air broadcasting to the channel. The news channel Globovisión still faces lawsuits, more administrative sanctions and other harassment by the regime. The chief of state has insulted and threatened Globovisión. The government continues to systematically deny the possibility of expanding to on-air broadcasting in an effort to try to restrict the spread of its messages, news and free opinion. The general director of the channel, Alberto Federico Ravell, said in October of 2007 the suspension ordered by the National Electoral Council of some brief reports about a constitutional amendment that the council thought might cause “electoral abstention” was censorship. On January 31, Globovisión rejected a demand by the government agency Conatel against brief testimonial reports called “You Saw It,” which the government did not like. Globovisión reported on February 8 that it was harassed by SENIAT. Officials showed up unannounced in the afternoon demanding that books be handed over immediately and requesting extensive tax information. The Media Committee of the National Assembly said it “supports all legal actions that social and political organizations take against Globovisión.” On February 11, with the slogan, “Now it is Globovisión’s turn,” pro-government individuals asked the national Attorney General’s Office to investigate the channel, allegedly for “offending Chávez and distorting news.” Three days later, pro-Chávez groups gathered outside Globovisión to protest news they said was against President Chávez, and painted graffiti attacking the channel’s executives. On February 16, Globovisión complained to the Public Prosecutor’s Office about attacks by pro-government individuals against it. The Communications and Information Ministry urged Globovisión on February 19 to “respect the president and the people,” saying the government does not intend to close the channel. Pro-Chávez activist leaders declared that Globovisión was “a target of the revolution,” and asserted that “anyone can decide to place a bomb at Globovisión.” On the same day, February 27, they held a protest vigil in front of the station and painted slogans on its walls. Two days later, the assembly of the government party considered actions against Globovisión, and proposed revoking its license. On February 4, the interior and justice minister accused the Venezuelan media of “collaborating with the enemy” and committing “treason to the homeland” by reporting about the movement of tanks and troops toward the Colombian border which the president had ordered publicly on television. In addition, on November 28, the Venezuelan Press Bloc issued a statement reporting a serious delay by the currency exchange control agency, CADIVI, in delivering foreign currency to pay providers of newsprint abroad. The daily Correo de Caroni did not circulate for three days beginning December 12 because it did not receive newsprint from its supplier, the DIPALCA company. The government had not delivered the foreign currency in time. The publisher of the daily El Regional of Zulia, Gilberto Urdaneta, also reported that his newspaper had enough newsprint for only 22 days for the same reason. The newspapers El Impulso, Nuevo País, the magazine Zeta and other publications reported on that date that inventories of newsprint were low, which threatens their circulation in the short term, because of government delays in releasing controlled currencies. Venezuelan newspapers live in uncertainty about the stock of newsprint and other supplies for the press that are not made in the country, since imports must be authorized by the government office that controls currency exchange. On February 11, the Carabobo state culture secretary threatened the dailies El Carabobeño and Noti-Tarde with bombings, saying that they should “see themselves in the mirror of RCTV and Globovisión.” The official threatened that they could “see their doors close,” adding that they should “be very careful with what you publish tomorrow.” This violent warning from the government was a reaction to the companies’ support for the “Arturo Michelena” art biennial which traditionally has been sponsored for many years by the Valencia Ateneo. The administration considers free cultural activities contradictory to the political and ideological action the Chávez government promotes. After this report was presented at the Midyear Meeting, Marcos Hernández, president of the Venezuelan pro-government NGO Journalists for the Truth, threatened to initiate a court case against the Venezuelan Press Bloc for having said that it would attempt to regain RCTV’s frequency. He also threatened the IAPA gathering, saying that if Venezuela is attacked at this meeting “we’ll know what to do.”