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Conclusions of emergency forum on freedom of expression held by IAPA in Venezuela

"Legal architecture" intended to weaken press freedom is criticized

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami (September 21, 2009) - The creation of a legal framework to cripple news media operations, verbal smears, legal harassment and attacks on journalists are some of the common denominators in acts used against press freedom in several countries throughout the Americas, according to conclusions reached at a forum held by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and the Venezuelan Press Bloc (BPV) in Caracas on September 18.

Representatives of world and regional associations dedicated to freedom of expression along with a number of Venezuelan journalists who reviewed the growing authoritarianism of the government voiced their fears that in the future the media may be forced to opt for "complicity of silence" and self-censorship as a means of self protection.

The conclusions, nonetheless, also echoed encouragement to resist damage by those in power. The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Texas, stated, "We must confront the threats with the force of words and with faith and confidence that through democracy all will survive."

IAPA President Enrique Santos Calderón and the organization's 2nd vice president, Gonzalo Marroquín, editors of the Bogotá, Colombia, newspaper El Tiempo and Prensa Libre of Guatemala City, Guatemala, respectively, agreed that "we can confirm today that what we suspected is, in fact, a reality: policies of press repression are being replicated from one country to the next." That is why, they said, they were calling for "united efforts to ensure that the people's right to know is not crushed, that dissent is tolerated and that quality journalism continues" as elements essential for democracy.

The forum held a special discussion on the future of freedom of the press in Venezuela. Marcel Granier, director general of RCTV, blamed heads of state and international agencies for the deterioration of freedom in the country, declaring, ". . . (Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez) Zapatero, (José Miguel) Insulza, or the UN, the OAS, President (Barack) Obama and his Secretary of State, and the leaders of France, Italy or Brazil, are all put under official notice that in Venezuela on a single day 32 radio stations were shut down and preparations are under way to close 208 more in the clearly foreseeable, radical and total elimination of freedom of expression, a process that began on May 27, 2007 with the closing of RCTV and that continues with constant threats and criminalization of any media that holds an independent editorial position."

David Natera, BPV president and editor of the Venezuelan newspaper Correo del Caroní, added that besides closing radio stations, the government has created a propaganda machine, allowing those in power to control 59 per cent of the airwaves, as well as filing 137 lawsuits against journalists and six administrative proceedings aimed to shutdown TV network Globovisión.

Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Caracas newspaper El Nacional, declared, "The final objective is to dominate communications, not only through increased attacks but also by implementing a legal framework that prevents free press action. And taking public power hostage.

The law was the first to apply penalties, impose exaggerated fines and void property rights . . . and we've already seen how broadcast stations have been shut down over ownership issues."

Alberto Federico Ravell, executive director of the Globovisión TV network, stated that although the network has not been physically shut down, "there are other ways of closing us down, through attacks on executives, taxes, financial strangulation . . . ". He added, "The most serious enemy in Venezuela is self-censorship. Many radio stations have changed their programming in favor of the government to avoid censorship and closing. Many are turning into accomplices."

The forum - which triggered a vote in the National Assembly classifying the IAPA "non grata", anti-IAPA ads and street protests - also served to review the major problems elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Jaime Mantilla, president of the Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Publishers (AEDEP) and editor of Diario Hoy of Quito, criticized President Rafael Correa's takeover of a newspaper and television networks and his creation of a media company to "bombard" the public about his revolution. Mantilla informed that the communication bill currently under debate in the National Assembly would limit freedom of the press in the South American country by interfering with media content.

On another legal issue, Luis Pardo Saínz, president of the International Association of Broadcasting (IAB), added "Many governments are coming up with a series of measures contrary to democracy," and cited the regulations under the proposed Audiovisual Services Law of Argentina.

Marco Antonio Dipp, president of the National Press Association of Bolivia, editor of the Correo del Sur newspaper, Sucre, Bolivia, pointed to the deterioration in press freedom in his country where there were 71 personal assaults and 161 attacks on media outlets in the last year. He predicted that the situation will probably worsen after the December elections when, if the current government is re-elected, it will implement principles of the new Constitution adopted in January that run counter to the free practice of journalism.

The executive director of Brazil's National Newspaper Association (ANJ), Ricardo Pedreira, declared that while in Brazil "we do not have the problem of other countries where radio and television stations are being shut down, our most serious obstacle is the legal issue," stating that there are 31 legal proceedings under way against the media, 16 of which are court orders prohibiting the distribution of information.

Pedreira noted that despite the fact that the Constitution prohibits prior censorship it is often imposed by judges, as in the controversial case of the São Paulo newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, which may not publish information on a case of alleged corruption in which Senator (and former President José) Sarney and his son are said to be involved.

The forum also featured special presentations by former presidents Alejandro Toledo of Peru and Carlos Mesa of Bolivia. The IAPA international delegation, in addition to Santos, Marroquín and Rivard, included the chairman of the organization's Executive Committee, Juan Luis Correa of La Estrella and El Siglo of Panama City, Panama; Gustavo Bell of El Heraldo of Colombia; César Pérez of El Universal and Clemente Vivanco of La Hora, both of Ecuador, and Executive Director Julio E. Muñoz and Press Freedom Director Ricardo Trotti.

In addition to the IAPA and BPV sponsoring the event were international organizations: International Association of Broadcasting (IAB); World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN/IFRA); International Center for Journalists (ICFJ); Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ); World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC); International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and International Press Institute (IPI), and national press organizations: Association of Colombian Newspapers (ANDIARIOS); Association of Argentine Press Entities (ADEPA); Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Publishers (AEDEP); Mexican Editors and Publishers Association (AME); National Press Association, Bolivia (ANP); National Press Association, Chile (ANP); National Association of Newspapers, Brazil (ANJ), and the Peruvian Press Council (CPP).

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