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MEDIA THREATENED AMID ATTEMPTS AT CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

Venezuelans narrowly rejected constitutional reforms over the weekend that would have allowed President Hugo Chávez to proclaim an indefinite state of emergency and suspend press freedom. Meanwhile, violent clashes continue in Bolivia in response to President Evo Morales's reform plans.

In Venezuela, voters rejected the proposed constitutional changes in the 2 December referendum, with 51 percent against and 49 percent in favour. Besides allowing the president to eliminate the right to information during a state of emergency, the reforms would have let Chávez run for re-election indefinitely. Opponents of the reforms, including IFEX members the Institute of Press and Society (Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, IPYS), the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF), feared the changes would grant Chávez unchecked power and threaten basic rights.

The rebuff, an unprecedented defeat for Chávez since coming to power in 1998, will oblige him to stand down when his term ends in 2013 rather than continuing to run for office until 2050 as he had hoped. Analysts say it will also embolden the opposition to create a more unified front.

Chávez said he would respect the results, despite a low turnout of 55 percent - some chavistas say his reforms went too far and risked concentrating too much power.

But the Venezuelan leader remains extremely popular with the poor. According to news reports, he has redistributed more oil wealth than any other leader. "Supporters had embraced the proposed changes as a continuation of a radical but peaceful transformation that has put Venezuela at the heart of South America's 'pink tide' of leftwing governments," says the "Guardian".

RSF is convinced the proposed reforms affecting the media - and the recent closure of popular television station RCTV - "had a direct impact on the outcome of the referendum," and will hopefully mean "the end of confrontation and media battles."

Both the pro-government and opposition media have suffered in violent clashes triggered by debates over the reforms. In one case, IPYS reports that 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. In another instance, 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.

An IAPA delegation earlier in November found a polarisation of public opinion, "increasingly exacerbated in the country due to a political climate in which confrontation rather than a respectful, plural and diverse dialogue predominates," and that the public did not have time to familiarise themselves with many aspects of the reforms.

Meanwhile, in Bolivia, violent protests over the government's attempt to rewrite the constitution have led to at least five journalists being assaulted and many more harassed in recent days, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), RSF and IPYS.

On 24 November, the constituent assembly meeting in Sucre approved the broad outlines of a new constitution, which would allow for Morales's indefinite re-election and give more political power to Bolivia's marginalised indigenous majority.

But on the streets over the weekend, opposition protesters clashed with police, sparking violent riots involving rocks, tear gas and rubber bullets. Three protesters and one police officer were killed in the fighting, and at least five journalists were beaten by police, says CPJ. An estimated 130 were wounded. According to RSF, BBC reporter Lola Almudevar was killed in a traffic accident on her way to cover the unrest. Eduardo García, a Spanish reporter working for Reuters who was travelling with Almudevar, was seriously injured.

A Catholic educational radio station, ACLO, whose Quechua-language programmes are partly produced by local indigenous communities, was forced to suspend broadcasting after being threatened by radical opposition students, says RSF.

The entire political opposition boycotted the vote, saying that Morales is trying to follow Chávez's lead by changing the constitution to broaden his authority. The constitution still needs to be approved article by article and in a national referendum.

CPJ says that violence also flared in La Paz, where Morales led a rally in support of the changes on 26 November. Pro-government protesters harassed journalists and attacked media outlets. According to CPJ, more than a dozen attacks on journalists have been reported in recent months.

In the wake of the Sucre protests, the government has started dialogue with media representatives in an effort to guarantee their safety. RSF hailed the initiative, but said talks should be expanded to include "the entire political class as the opposition groups have not been any kinder to the press than the pro-government activists."

Visit these links

on Venezuela:
- IPYS: http://www.ipys.org/
- IAPA: http://tinyurl.com/2ntz3a
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24538
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/32gys3
- IFEX alerts on media harassment: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/139/
- "Guardian": http://tinyurl.com/2rvekn
on Bolivia:
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/2umd6c
- CPJ report, "Bolivia's Historic Moment": http://www.cpj.org/boliviahistoric/index.html
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24581
- IFEX alerts: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/130/
- Lola Almudevar tribute: http://www.lolaalmudevar.com/
(Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez with a copy of the constitution and his proposed changes. Photo courtesy of Reuters)

(4 December 2007)

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