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Ruling party supporters harass journalist; newspaper threatened with legal action

(IPYS/IFEX) - On 9 December 2009, supporters of the ruling Venezuela United Socialist Party (PSUV) harassed journalist Jorge Villet Salas and threw him out of a press conference organised by Mérida state Governor Marcos Días Orellana. Villet works for the "Cambio de Siglo" newspaper and hosts the "De frente a frente" programme aired on CDR 98.7 FM radio station.

According to the journalist, the political party invited him to attend the press conference. While at the conference, he attempted to obtain statements from the authorities about a violent incident that took place in the city of Mérida on 8 December, when a group of residents set fire to an office of the state-owned electricity company Corpoelec in protest against constant blackouts that are experienced in the area. Villet said that a group of individuals at the conference, which included both Corpoelec employees and members of the ruling party, reacted by insulting him and accusing him of being the instigator of the actions against Corpoelec. They then pushed him off the premises where the press conference was being held.

The radio programme that the journalist hosts is critical of the government.

The individuals involved in harassing Villet accused him of using the radio programme to instigate the violent actions that took place on 8 December. Villet refuted the accusation, saying he was out of town on the day of the incident.

In a separate case, the "TalCual" newspaper received a memorandum from the government's banking superintendent, Edgar Hernández Behrens, in which he demanded that the paper's columnists "improve their treatment of information" about administrative actions against a group of Venezuelan banks. The memorandum relates to information published on 1 December in the newspaper's online edition. It went on to state that the columnists' approach to presenting the information could result in penalties under the General Law on Banks and Other Financial Institutions. This law provides for prison sentences of 9 to 11 years for the dissemination of false news or the use of fraudulent means which could interfere with the national banking system and affect the country's economic conditions.

The news items that Hernández Behrens criticised include statements made by the minister of finance, Alí Rodríguez Araque, about a recent intervention and liquidation of banks belonging to businessman Ricardo Fernández, and a statement about the allocation of public funds to those banking institutions.

In an 8 December editorial, Teodoro Petkoff, the newspaper's editor, responded to the banking superintendent's memorandum saying that the banking law should be applied to those who are "defrauding the country", including individuals connected to President Hugo Chávez, instead of using it in an attempt to censor the media.

IPYS views the memorandum sent to the newspaper as an attempt to pressure the media and hinder access to information that is of interest to the public.

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