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Government gets aggressive with media in attempt to hide violence in Venezuela

A demonstrator with a Venezuelan flag draped around himself protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, in front of a riot police line in Caracas 12 February 2014
A demonstrator with a Venezuelan flag draped around himself protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, in front of a riot police line in Caracas 12 February 2014

REUTERS/Jorge Silva

One day after peaceful protests calling for the government to allow newspapers to import newsprint, came violence ignited by demonstrations against the government of Venezuela's President Maduro. The student-led protests that took place countrywide on 12 February ended with three protestors dead and at least 60 others injured. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the protests had been organized in response to the detention of students during earlier marches.

Local IFEX member Espacio Público reported that on top of protestor deaths and escalating violence, demonstrators were also detained and some journalists' materials were confiscated in clashes with security forces. In Caracas two people were killed in a crowd that had gathered near a Public Prosecutor's office. The third protester was killed later in the day in Chacao.

In the fallout, the government has blamed the deaths and destruction on the opposition. On 12 February, a judge issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo López, accusing him of “causing serious injuries, public intimidation, burning a public building, and damage to public property,” reported Human Rights Watch.

In his 13 February national “cadena” radio and TV programme, President Maduro told the country that the protests had one objective, and that was “to destroy Venezuela, take over the country and its natural resources, and to destroy the beautiful experience of socialist revolution in peace and democracy”.

The media has been caught in the crossfire, both literally, as in the case of cameraman Jilfredo Alejandro Barrada, who was shot in the leg in Mérida, and legally, with the authorities threatening to bring actions against outlets reporting the violence. The Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela (IPYS-Venezuela) reports that on 11 February, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) warned the press that doing so would violate Article 27 of the Radio and TV Social Responsibility Law (known as the Ley Resorte) which prohibits broadcasting of hate speech and violence and disturbing public order.

CONATEL has used Article 27 in the past to penalise former opposition TV station Globovisión after it aired coverage in January 2013 that called into question the interpretation of rules on the swearing-in of the president-elect. At the time, Hugo Chávez was undergoing treatment in Cuba for the cancer that he would eventually succumb to in March 2013.

State broadcasters and those allied with the government ignored the protests, broadcasting entertainment programmes instead.

Not content with silencing just Venezuela's media, the government took NTN24, a Colombian news station, off the air after the station carried coverage of the anti-government protests. A statement from the Committee to Protect Journalists says that NTN24 found they were no longer being aired in Venezuela after CONATEL ordered the two cable providers that carry NTN24, DirecTV and Movistar, to stop the broadcast. According to Espacio Público, Maduro took responsibility for the move, adding that the State would continue to defend "the right to peace in Venezuela,” perhaps a warning to other outlets critical of his administration.

Tensions continue to run high, with the president calling on his supporters to march “for peace and against fascism” on 15 February. Two days after the protests, rights groups are calling for an investigation into the violence and for an end to Maduro's censoring of media that go against the official line.

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