Freedom of the Press
Press freedom in Venezuela suffered from a host of problems in 2008, including the politicization of the judiciary, widespread corruption, harassment of the opposition, extensive self-censorship, and reprisals orchestrated by public officials. While freedoms of speech and the press are constitutionally guaranteed, the 2004 Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television contains vaguely worded restrictions that can be used to severely limit these freedoms. Criminal statutes assign hefty fines and long prison terms for “offending” or “denigrating” the authorities. Legal defenses in insult cases are complicated by the unpredictability of courts’ rationale, often resulting in a more cautious approach on the part of the press. Since 2005, defamation of the president has been punishable by 6 to 30 months in prison. Insults against lower-ranking officials can result in lighter punishments. Individuals can also sue the press for “public disdain” or “hatred.” Public officials, from the president to local administrators, frequently denounce members of the opposition press as “fascists,” “terrorists,” and “enemies of the people.” Under pressure, President Hugo Chavez revoked a controversial Espionage Law that would have forced Venezuelans to cooperate with intelligence services or face jail time. The law also would have imposed civil and criminal penalties for diffusing information classified as secret or confidential. In general, independent journalists complained that a lack of access impeded their reporting in 2008; they were often denied entry to military ceremonies and other official events that state media were allowed to attend.
Media watchdogs reported a wide array of attacks on press freedom during the year. In August, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) closed two FM radio stations for operating without proper licenses. The closures were condemned in Venezuela and abroad as politically motivated. In September, Jose Miguel Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson, respectively the Americas director and deputy director for Human Rights Watch, were expelled from the country after releasing a critical report entitled A Decade Under Chavez. Also during the year, the National Journalists’ Guild accused Chavez of violating the rights of the press, while the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard similar grievances from broadcast journalists.
Violent attacks against the media such as shootings and assaults occur regularly. In July, reporter Dayana Fernandez and photographer Luis Torres of the newspaper La Verdad were assaulted by Maracaibo city officials while covering waste disposal practices. The journalists’ equipment was confiscated and they were allegedly beaten and held for more than two hours. The murder of journalists is fairly rare. However, Pierre Fould Gerges, vice president of the Caracas daily Reporte Diario de la Economia, was gunned down in the capital on June 2. Two weeks later, news anchor Javier Garcia of Radio Caracas Television Internacional (RCTV Internacional) was found stabbed to death in his apartment, supposedly after being robbed. The case was still being investigated at year’s end.
Free-to-air broadcast media are largely owned by the government, which operates seven channels with nationwide coverage. However, Venezuela’s leading newspapers are privately owned, and most identify with the opposition. As a result, they are subject to threats and violence by the government and its supporters, sometimes leading to self-censorship. Local and regional media are particularly dependent on government advertising revenue, leaving them vulnerable to economic retaliation for criticism. According to a study by the regional watchdog group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, fear of offending the government and a reluctance to antagonize ad buyers were the two primary reasons for a high level of editorial self-censorship. The president has a weekly television show and exercises his power to preempt regular programming to ensure extensive coverage of government cadenas (announcements) in private media.The launching of the first Venezuelan satellite (the Simon Bolivar 1) in October was not covered by the nation’s private networks, highlighting the partisan nature of the media. In July 2008, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice once again declined to give the opposition-aligned RCTV Internacional—which is available via cable, satellite, and the internet—a license to operate as a terrestrial station, which would enable it to reach a considerably larger segment of the population. There are currently no government restrictions on the internet, which was used by roughly 25 percent of the population in 2008. However, a controversial bill that would give the government the power to censor telecommunication services, including the internet, was pending in late 2008. The government denied that internet censorship was the purpose of the measure.