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Court bans media from reporting on water pollution claims

A Venezuelan court has ruled that the press cannot report on water contamination issues without using government-approved information, report the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS-Venezuela), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Daniel Guédez, a criminal court judge in the capital, Caracas, ruled last month that any media reports on the quality of the local water supply must be based upon "a truthful technical report supported by a competent government body," reports CPJ.

News accounts in recent weeks had questioned whether bodies of water around the capital that provide drinking water were contaminated with chemicals. The government has denied that the water is polluted.

"This is effectively a gag order on a matter of public health," said CPJ's Carlos Lauría. "Forbidding the Venezuelan media from reporting on the quality of the water supply is an outrage. Authorities should reverse this decision immediately."

The ruling came less than 24 hours after President Hugo Chávez called for judicial authorities to investigate anyone who had raised concerns about the possible contamination of water that supplies drinking water plants in parts of central Venezuela and Caracas.

But according to CPJ, in an interview on the day of the ruling, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said the decision was unrelated to the President's statements, and that it had originated from a complaint made by three citizens who said the news coverage of the issue was creating public panic.

"The media has an obligation to inform truthfully and cannot generate this kind of fear in the population," Díaz said.

RSF criticised the ruling. "This is just politically motivated censorship," said RSF in a statement. "When the authorities are unnerved by a story like this, they tend to brand it as an attempt to 'destabilise' public order. Is the public so incapable of forming its own opinion?"

According to CPJ, local free expression group Espacio Público has said that in the past authorities have been uncooperative about sharing government-approved reports. After seeking official results for water quality tests last year, the group received a letter stating: "All the necessary tests were conducted... [and] the quality of water in the city of Caracas is drinkable according to parameters established by the World Health Organization."

IFEX members have documented numerous instances of Chávez's campaign to stifle critical reporting through regulatory, judicial and legislative avenues. With seven months to go to presidential elections, in which Chávez will face a challenge from opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the media are already experiencing a level of tension and confrontation well beyond normal, says RSF.

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