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Coverage of campaigns on constitutional reform referendum impeded; Chávez accuses CNN of encouraging his assassination

(IPYS/IFEX) - The work of various media outlets or journalists has been impeded or has met with negative reactions recently. President Hugo Chávez has accused CNN of encouraging his murder. The national electoral council forbade several media outlets from broadcasting advertisements for the controversial electoral reform proposal that the Chávez government had proposed, and also forbade an opposition television station from broadcasting an advertisement against the proposal. Demonstrators against the proposed reform mistreated a reporter from a state-owned television station when he tried to cover their demonstration in Caracas. As well, the day of the national referendum on the reform, two television crews were evicted from the electoral council headquarters in Zulia state although journalists from other private and state-owned media were allowed entry.

On 27 November 2007, President Chávez urged Venezuela's Attorney General's Office (Procuraduría General) to study the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the United States-based television station CNN. According to the president, the station was inciting the population to assassinate him when it broadcast a video in which he appears with Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, with a caption that read "Who killed him?"

The head of CNN en Español, Christopher Crommett, explained to IPYS that they corrected the caption and re-broadcast the news item without the mistake at least five more times at different hours, in the Spanish version of the programme as well as the English one. Crommet stated that no authority has notified them about a possible lawsuit.

However, Minister of Informatics and Telecommunication Jesse Chacón stated that the National Telecommunications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones, CONATEL) will inspect the cable television operator that broadcasts CNN, and that if any evidence emerges confirming that this media outlet committed a crime, it could be sued under Venezuelan law.

IPYS believes a lawsuit against CNN would be unconstitutional, as the law does not regulate cable television operators or their broadcasts.

In a separate development, on 28 November, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) suspended the broadcast of two advertisements against the constitutional reform produced by the civil organization Sinergia and broadcast by Globovisión television station. It also prohibited several media outlets from broadcasting an advertisement from the Ministry of Information and Communication (Ministerio de Información y Comunicación, MINCI) that favored the reform.

The CNE suspended Sinergia's advertisement because the organization had not registered as a member of a block disseminating advertising for or against the proposed constitutional reform.

In the case of MINCI, the Council prohibited its advertisement because on broadcasting it the ministry was caught in a legal contradiction; on the one hand it could broadcast free messages thanks to the Responsibility in Radio and TV Law (Ley de Responsabilidad en Radio y TV), while on the other one it was forbidden to do so under the referendum's regulations, which stipulated that no public entities could disseminate proselytizing messages. However, the State channel broadcast government messages in favor of the reform during the election campaign.

In a separate incident, on 29 November, a group of demonstrators against the constitutional reform mistreated the state-owned television station Venezolana de Televisión's journalist Eduardo Silvera while he covered the event opponents of the constitutional reform held in Caracas to end their campaign. The journalist was covering the event when one of the assailants grabbed his microphone.

As well, on 2 December, the day of the national referendum on the polemical proposal to reform the Constitution, members of the Plan República - soldiers responsible for maintaining order during the voting on the constitutional reform - evicted Globovisión's and Urbe Televisión's broadcasting teams from the Zulia headquarters of the CNE, making it impossible for them to cover the referendum process.

Jesús Gonzáles, Globovisión's correspondent, and Letty Vásquez, information director for Urbe Televisión, told IPYS that they did not know the reason for the expulsions, although they suppose that they must have been in response to an order from the regional head of Plan República, general Alcides Moreno Acosta. Both stations were authorized to cover the referendum. Other media, both private and state-owned, were allowed to enter the CNE's Zulia office.

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