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Call for Venezuelan interim government to respect press freedom

(IPI/IFEX) - The International Press Institute (IPI) today [12 March 2013] called on the Venezuelan interim government to respect press freedom, refrain from any form of harassment of opposition media, and ensure the safety of journalists in the upcoming presidential election. The vote, to be held on April 14, will be a crucial test for the state of press freedom in post-Chávez Venezuela.

“Now, more than ever, the Venezuelan people have a right to be informed about the events that are shaping their country,” IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said. “Unless the Venezuelan press is empowered to report independently on matters of public interest, the country's citizens cannot fully exercise their democratic duty at the polls. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression must be guaranteed during this critical transition period.”

Mills urged interim leader and previous vice president Nicholás Maduro, to work to prevent a repeat of attacks on the press during the 2012 presidential election. Last year, the non-governmental Press and Society Institute of Venezuela (IPYS-Venezuela, according to its Spanish acronym) recorded more than 173 press freedom violations, well surpassing the tally of previous years. The increase in attacks against journalists has been attributed to election coverage in a country deeply divided among political lines.

IPI is specifically concerned about what appear to be government attempts to instil self-censorship on the part of the media. Last Friday, 8 March, Venezuela's foreign minister, Elías Jaua, publicly called on media not to publish “political analysis that could constitute a provocation for a mourning people.” Jaua confirmed that the country's information minister, Ernesto Villegas, had personally phoned editors urging them to “not repeat the same lack of respect” that certain media outlets had been accused of showing during Chávez's illness.

The presidency of Hugo Chávez Frías was marked not only by highly public actions such as the 2007 closure of privately-owned Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), but also, Venezuelan media representatives emphasised to IPI, more veiled but equally troubling activities such as the alleged abuse of Venezuela's public media to transmit the views of the ruling party.

“The public media have a responsibility to serve Venezuela's citizens, not the party that happens to be in power at a given time,” Mills emphasised. “While the government has frequently accused the private media of promoting a political agenda, it has unfortunately not applied the same standards to public media. All media, regardless of affiliation, should strive to present information related to the presidential campaign factually and in a balanced manner.”

Speaking to IPI last year, IPYS-Venezuela Executive Director Marianela Balbi, also raised concern about direct government interference into the content of some 300-odd community media, which are a leading source of information in rural Venezuela, and are supported financially by the government.

Interim leader and presidential candidate Nicholás Maduro has already picked up on his predecessor's use of government power to interfere in media reporting. In particular, the frequent use of cadenas, government broadcasts required to be carried simultaneously by all stations, public and private, has been of concern to IPI. Over the weekend, Maduro used a cadena to denounce the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, as “miserable, irresponsible, and fascist.”

IPI is also deeply troubled by the decision to exclude Globovisión, an independent channel known for its critical coverage of the Chávez administration, from the country's new digital broadcasting scheme. The station called the decision a “death sentence,” according to reports.

Globovisión has frequently been the target of administrative and legal sanctions that observers believe are designed to silence the station. Last July, the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld a US$ 2.162 million fine against the station for inciting “public anxiety, hatred, and intolerance” during its June 2011 coverage of a deadly prison riot at the El Rodeo prison near Caracas. Globovisión is also currently fighting six administrative actions launched by Conatel, the Venezuelan telecommunications commission. These actions, which date back to 2008, could result in Globovisión's temporary closure, according to documents provided to IPI by the station's legal adviser, Ricardo Antela.

This past weekend, Globovisión's majority owner, Guillermo Zuluaga, confirmed plans to sell 80% of the station's shares to Juan Domingo Cordero, an insurance magnate with reported ties to the president of Venezuela's National Assembly. The sale, which would not be finalised until after the presidential vote, has raised concerns about the future of one of the few voices critical of the ruling party.

Over the course of Chávez's illness and after his later death, the interim government in Venezuela has appeared intent on maintaining a tight grip on information given to the public. For example, interim officials reacted strongly to the publishing of reports about the presumed relocation of Chávez to Orchila Island and his later admission to a military hospital, on March 2, by the privately owned dailies El Universal and El Nacional. Maduro accused the newspapers of following “a strategy of media terrorism” with the intention to discredit and destabilise the government, according to IPYS-Venezuela.

IPI was also disturbed by a recent act of violence against Colombian journalist working as a correspondent in Venezuela, Carmen Andrea. According to the Colombia newspaper Semana, Andrea and her cameraman Samuel Sotomayor were attacked by alleged Chávez sympathisers on March 5. Andrea escaped the attack with only minor fractures. Sotomayor remained unharmed.

Semana speculates that Andrea, who was in the capital to cover the news of Chávez's death for RCN TV, might have become the victim of aggression because of her reports. In 2012 she covered an explosion in a refinery on the island of Paraguaná, which led to a row with Chávez after the journalist claimed that local residents had warned of a gas smell prior to the explosion.