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Media harassment continues as press-threatening constitutional reform advances

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 28 November 2007 RSF press release:

CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM SEEN AS "DANGEROUS WATERSHED" FOR PRESS FREEDOM

Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the threats to press freedom posed by two articles in a reform to the 1999 Constitution approved by the national assembly on 26 October 2007, that Venezuelans are being asked to endorse in a referendum on 2 December. The organisation also fears for the safety of journalists in a media war waged during the referendum campaign and fed by clashes between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chávez.

"Why did President Chávez have to risk exacerbating the divisions and polarisation among the population by amending a Constitution which he himself got the country to adopt in 1999?" RSF asked. "The 1999 Constitution was drafted with help from civil society and ended up achieving a degree of consensus. The reform is inopportune and has been condemned by leading figures and political parties who until now had supported the government. In particular, articles 337 and 338 dangerously violate the spirit of the preamble and threaten press freedom."

The organisation added: "The climate in which the referendum campaign has taken place and the appalling attacks on the press from both sides could at any moment be used as grounds for decreeing an unlimited state of emergency under article 338 and thereby suspending such basic constitutional guarantees as the right to information under article 337. Approval of this reform could therefore represent a dangerous watershed for press freedom."

Both the pro-government and opposition media have taken a heavy toll in the course of repeated clashes triggered by the debate over the constitutional reform. The violence escalated after the 2 December referendum was formally convened.

Television reporters Francia Sánchez of RCTV Internacional and Diana Carolina Ruiz of Globovisión were physically attacked as the police looked on without intervening during a student demonstration outside parliament in Caracas on 15 October. Paulina Moreno of state-owned TV Avila was injured by an explosive device in Caracas on 25 October, while her crew was sprayed with insecticide by reform opponents.

Parliamentarian Iris Varela, who advocates a state takeover of Globovisión, stormed into the studios of Televisión Regional del Táchira (TRT) in the western city of San Cristóbal on 20 November while Gustavo Azócar was hosting his programme "Café con Azócar," claimed she had been offended by Azócar, refused his offer of right of response on the next day's programme and smashed equipment.

Varela said she would not sue Azócar "in order not to turn him into a martyr," but she called on his employers to dismiss him "under pain of having the station's broadcast licence immediately revoked" and she called on her fellow parliamentarians to support her. Varela's behaviour was condemned by Periodistas por la Verdad (Journalists for Truth), a pro-government group of journalists.

Public opinion is polarised on the constitutional reform and this is naturally reflected within the already deeply divided media. The University of Göteborg (in Sweden) and the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) of Caracas monitored coverage of the campaign by the main radio and TV stations from 5 to 25 November, the weeks immediately following the announcement convening the referendum. "The behaviour of the broadcast media was, on the whole, very imbalanced," the survey said. (. . .)

The referendum being held on 2 December - despite calls for a postponement, in some cases from within the ruling coalition - is meant to ratify some 60 changes or additions to the Constitution that President Chávez promulgated at the beginning of his first mandate in 1999. Articles 337 and 338 are among the most controversial provisions and have been criticised by such leading Chávez supporters as former defence minister Gen. Raúl Baduel and the centre-left party Podemos, whose representatives abstained when the national assembly voted on the reform.

In its original form in the 1999 constitution, article 338 said "the state of emergency can last 30 days, and can be renewed for the same period, or in cases of internal or external conflict, it can last as long as 90 days, and can be renewed for the same period." The amended form drops any mention of a deadline for renewal and allows the president to proceed without referring to the Supreme Court, violating judicial precedent set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In its original form, article 337 said certain constitutional guarantees, including access to information, could not be suspended in a state of emergency decreed by the government. The amended version has dropped access to information from the list rights considered inviolable, even in a state of emergency.

National assembly deputy speaker Desiré Santos Amaral, herself a journalist, announced on 24 November that the law governing the work of journalists would be amended in 2008.

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