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Journalist faces possible imprisonment on "aggravated defamation" charges

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF calls on Venezuelan judges to be lenient with Miguel Salazar, the editor of the political weekly "Las Verdades de Miguel", who faces a possible prison sentence for "aggravated defamation" in a trial that was due to start 18 April 2007 in Caracas.

"It is not up to us to assess how defamatory the offending articles may have been, as the case has not yet been tried, but this trial poses two dangers for press freedom," RSF said. "Firstly, the two plaintiffs are public officials and as such should expect to be criticised, especially from an opinion weekly. So it is a problem that the 'defamation' is deemed to be 'aggravated', just because they are officials."

The press freedom organisation added: "Secondly and more importantly, if Salazar is convicted and sentenced, it will encourage self-censorship and endanger free expression. For this reason, we call on the judges to be lenient."

Salazar is a supporter of President Hugo Chávez's government, although he often criticises it in his weekly (whose name refers to his own first name). In late 2003, he ran a report about alleged corruption and human rights violations in the central state of Guárico.

In January 2005, Guárico governor Eduardo Manuitt, parliamentarian José Albornoz and former minister Rafael Vargas sued Salazar and one of his journalists, Henry Crespo, who had written about the corruption cases, for "aggravated defamation."

Crespo received a suspended sentence of 18 months in prison on 5 May 2005, and did not appeal. But Salazar immediately challenged the court's impartiality before the Caracas Supreme Court. The case was referred to a lower court in Caracas, which ordered Salazar's temporary detention on the grounds that he had not appeared for new preliminary hearings.

On 13 March 2007, the court executed the detention order and detained Salazar in the law courts. Another judge, Norma Torres, nonetheless lifted the detention order but ordered Salazar to report to the court every week and banned him from leaving the country. And the first hearing on the substance of the "aggravated defamation" suit was set for 18 April.

Salazar faces two to four years in prison and a fine of US$320,000 under the criminal code, in which the penalties for press offences were significantly increased by an amendment in 2005.

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