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Provincial journalist prosecuted on dubious criminal libel charge

(RSF/IFEX) - Gustavo Azócar, a journalist based in the western state of Táchira who has been prosecuted with varying degrees of success in the past, was due to appear on 7 February 2011 before a Táchira court again on a charge of libelling an army officer in 2004, when one of his jobs was correspondent for the national daily "El Universal".

The case was prompted by an article he wrote for "El Universal" on 12 September 2004 about alleged trafficking in identity papers at the National Office for Identification and Foreigners (now the Autonomous Service for Identification, Migration and Foreigners). One of the people named in the article was Col. Rafael Ángel González, then coordinator of the "Identity Mission" in Táchira.

Col. González's libel suit was filed on 13 January 2005 and was passed to the courts a month later. But immediately after the article appeared, a González representative requested use of the right of reply, to which Azócar responded that "this right has always been guaranteed." The two parties signed an accord on 29 April 2005 under which González would use his right of reply as soon as the defence ministry gave him permission.

A settlement verification hearing was held on 10 January 2007 at which González said he still had not received permission. Eight more court hearings were convened without any response from the defence ministry. Each time Azócar reiterated his offer of use of the right of reply.

"Knowing Azócar's judicial history and the often questionable prosecutions brought against him in the past, we have every reason to regard this as another instance of judicial harassment," Reporters Without Borders said. "He has been hounded repeatedly because of his readiness to criticize the authorities when he was hosting the TV programme 'Café con Azócar' on the Televisión Regional de Táchira channel."

The press freedom organisation added: "Why, in this now old case, did the defence ministry not give the green light for this conciliatory offer approved by Col. González? Why did the court not ask for an explanation for the lack of response? The principle of fairness has not been respected."

Amendments to the criminal code in 2005 included a sharp increase in the penalties for press offences. If convicted, Azócar could face a possible one-year jail sentence (because the plaintiff held a public position) and a fine of up to 2,000 tax units (US$30,000).

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    Gustavo Azócar, an outspoken critic of the administration, had been jailed since July 2009 and barred from speaking publicly about the case.

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