Venezuela

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Attempts to control “the power of the press” are moving in unsuspected directions, such as the interest of the government in having dominance over communication, controlling entire chains of radio and television stations, print media and Web sites. However, the government still fears the independent and free press, and this has translated into a declared war on communication. The shutdown of RCTV continues, along with the confiscation of its equipment, as well as the withdrawal of broadcast licenses or concessions from 34 radio and television stations. TV network Globovisión continues to be threatened with legal action and its president, Guillermo Zuloaga, remains in exile. Also still outside of Venezuela and with legal proceedings having been begun against them are Rafael Poleo, editor of the magazine Zeta and the newspaper El Nuevo País, and reporter Patricia Poleo. A judge’s order continues to be in force prohibiting El Nacional from publishing pictures of the Caracas morgue showing human rights violations, as well as persistent harassment of its publisher, Miguel Henrique Otero. A number of legal reforms have served to control online media, social networks and the Web, while access to government and National Assembly sources continues to be restricted. The news company Globovisión is still being harassed with the opening of legal action against it and the blocking of its news coverage. On December 6 the government took over 20% of the shares that had belonged to the owner of the liquidated Banco Federal bank, Nelson Mezerhane. President Hugo Chávez on November 20 ordered the Attorney General’s Office, Supreme Court and the Vice President to “do something” against that channel, accusing Zuloaga of being in favor of assassination and ordering him to be put on trial for “treason to the fatherland.” This siege has kept Zuloaga in exile. Attorney General Luisa Ortega issued this threat on November 27: “If Zuloaga returns to the country he will be arrested.” In November the National Assembly applied a regulation that prohibits independent (privately-owned) television stations and media from being present in the legislature when there are debates. Now the only television channel that can broadcast from there is the state-owned ANTV. On February 18 reporters covering Congress complained that a cordon has been set up around the press office, and they requested an amendment of Article 66 of the Law on Rules of Debate, which restricts access by journalists to the chamber. On March 24 Representative Biaggio Pilieri denounced an intent by government party legislators to hijack the National Assembly’s Media Committee and prevent discussion of cases of freedom of the press and information. He added that the 67 members of Congress not belonging to the governing party rejected the cordoning off of reporters. Several legal reforms extended to the Internet the restrictions already existing disproportionately on open radio and television, increasing the number of requirements, fines, prohibitions and penalties for broadcast media. The new laws make it an offense punishable with fines for online service providers that infringe these controls. Words and images that are disseminated over the Internet are subject to controls. These prohibit the dissemination of content that could “incite anxiety among the citizens or disrupt public order,” “ignore the authorities,” or “show lack of respect for public officials.” They require “providers of online media to set up mechanisms that enable the restriction, without delay, of the dissemination of items” that break the law. But among the articles of greatest danger in the Amendment of the Organic Law on Telecommunications is number 22, which states, “The governing body shall be able when it considers it appropriate for the interests of the nation or when public order or security demand it to revoke or suspend administrative authorizations, concessions or permits.” Similarly, the Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, to which now has been added Online Media, places controls over all words, images or audio whose dissemination and reception takes place within Venezuela. Article 19 states that “within the competence of the governing body is the execution of policies of regulation and promotion in radio, television and online media.” The President had already warned of this before going on to Twitter. He said in April last year that his political adversaries were using social media to insult him, fool the public and discredit government officials, and he raised the possibility of regulating use of the Internet. The National Assembly ignored a call by national and international organizations to bring the legal framework into line with global standards. News portals in Venezuela are required to apply prior censorship and control of those who write or comment on a published matter. Internet providers have converted their “automatic filter of readers’ comments” into a “manual” to make “prior modification” of messages, according to Frank de Prada, founder and editor of Noticias 24.com, one of the most visited news portals in Latin America and the first one in Venezuela. De Prada said that on the same day that debate began on amendment of the Law on Responsibility of Radio and Television and Online Media there arrived at his office in Caracas nine rifle-bearing officers of the SEBIN (Government Political Police) who “invited” him to go to that unit’s headquarters. The reason was said to have been a comment posted on his Web site which according to the officers incited to crime. After he was interrogated for three hours they were unable to incriminate him. Independent news media are continuing to have their access to senior government sources curtailed, as well as visits to ministers and deputy ministers, on repeated occasions things have not been covered because the invitation has not arrived or because entry has been dened to those who might ask controversial questions. Reporters form independent media are not being allowed to cover press conferences that Chávez gives, while still continuing are bureaucratic obstacles, security setups, attacks, threats and other offenses committed by supporters of the President against journalists. On March 31 the National Press Workers Labor Union (SNTP) filed a formal denunciation with the Inter-American Human Rights Court of 159 cases of violations of freedom of expression made in threats, attacks, judicial harassment and intimidation of journalists, and the imposition of censorship on news media, those principally responsible for these aggressions being the state security agencies, public officials in various departments, and finally the judicial branch of government. The Union also stressed the lack of action by the Interior Ministry regarding investigations into seven formal complaints made to it, among them an attack on journalists with the Capriles Chain. Other significant developments during this period: On November 17 groups of government supporters attacked teams of reporters from Globovisión and Televén as they were working together to film flooding in Morán township in Lara state. They were prevented from doing so and were beaten up. On November 25 an appeal lodged by RCTVI was thrown out. The Supreme Court’s Political-Administrative Division ruled the television channel’s request for a nameless preliminary injunction to be inadmissible. On November 30 the sentencing to three years and nine months in prison and order not to work as a journalist handed down to Francisco Pérez was overturned. On November 17 the National Customs and Tax Administration (SENIAT) temporarily shut down three news media outlets – La Verdad newspaper and television channels Global TV and Zuliana de Televisión – and order them to pay hefty fines. On December 23 the National Guard and Metropolitan Police brutally broke up a peaceful march to protest the Law on Universities, injuring among others a news photographer from the AFP news agency. On January 21 RCTVI Director General Marcel Granier went to the headquarters of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) to deposit documents required to enable the TV channel to broadcast as what is called an Audiovisual Product in Venezuela. The same day a radio station in Ocumare de la Costa in Aragua state was taken off the air. The National Guard burst into the offices of Onda Costera 95.1 FM and proceeded to switch off its broadcast equipment. On February 3 the Supreme Court upheld the shutdown of Radio Bonita, along with 33 other radio stations, “due to administrative proceedings taken out by Conatel.” On February 15 television channel Tele Yaracuy in Yaracuyana was expropriated, its equipment being turned over to the government. On March 25 the director of radio station Musicable Higuerote 97.7 FM, Pedro Tartak, reported that Conatel had ordered an immediate halt to operations and the seizure of its broadcast equipment for having operated clandestinely. Tartak denied the accusation. On March 30 on arriving in Argentina Chávez said, “We have not closed down even a single media outlet in Venezuela.” He declared himself to feel honored by the Rodolfo Walsh Communication Award given by the University of La Plata. That day the Board of Directors of the National Journalists Guild in Venezuela called the grant of that award harmful and condemned a physical and verbal attack on journalist Lorena Cañas, Globovisión’s correspondent in Bolívar state. On April 6, journalists Maolis Castro and Ernesto Morgado, of the newspaper El Nacional, were held in the department of criminal investigation of Fuerte Tiuna, under the auspices of Colonel Jesús Ferrera García, after going to cover a demonstration by persons who had been wronged. Judge Jesús Jiménez, who presides over trial Courtroom 20 in the metropolitan area of Caracas, decided this past Monday to increase the frequency of court appearances by the journalist and editor of the 6o Poder, Leocenis García. The journalist now must report to the court every thirty days and cannot leave the country. Garcia stated that this prohibition to leave the country is motivated primarily by his status as a journalist and editor. In addition, Mr. Cesar Camejo, an editorial consultant, had to go into exile in Costa Rica in the face of multiple threats.

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