Freedom of the Press
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Media freedom declined in Venezuela in 2009 due to increased legal harassment. The authorities suppressed political opposition in the media through harsh regulation of privately owned broadcast channels. 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. Since 2005, defamation of the president has been punishable by 6 to 30 months in prison, while offending lower-ranking officials carries lighter punishments. Individuals can also sue the press for “public disdain” or “hatred.”
In July 2009, the attorney general introduced a bill designed to curb “the abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion” and to “prevent and punish actions or omissions” in the media that could constitute a crime. These included messages that threaten “social peace, the security and independence of the nation, the stability of state institutions, the peoples’ mental health or public ethics, and the justice system.” Following international criticism, the National Assembly shelved the bill in August. However, the legislature did adopt an education statute that prohibited materials inciting “hate,” “aggressiveness,” or “terror in children.” Journalists protested this law as a restriction on freedom of expression.
Regulatory harassment of the press continued unabated in 2009. After President Hugo Chavez succeeding in lifting term limits for elected officials in a February referendum, authorities again resorted to revoking broadcast licenses and taking legal action against critical media organizations. In July, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) launched a sweeping review of 240 broadcast licenses, pulling 32 private radio and 2 private television stations off the air. While CONATEL called the move an effort to “democratize the airwaves,” it was widely seen as an attempt to suppress dissent.
Throughout 2009, the private, opposition-oriented television station Globovision remained a key target of official harassment. Beginning in May, Globovision faced a growing number of state inquiries, such as accusations of “inciting panic and anxiety in the population” after it aired reports of an earthquake in Caracas. By mid-June, CONATEL and the Attorney General’s Office had opened a formal review on possible violations of the 2000 Law on Telecommunications, including lack of a proper network registration. The commission launched another probe in July, this time into claims that the station had created a general state of “anguish, anxiety, and fear.” In an additional administrative proceeding launched in September, Globovision was accused of using on-air text messages to incite a rebellion or coup.
Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a popular television station whose free-to-air broadcast license had been revoked in May 2007 and which had since operated a cable subsidiary called RCTV International (RCTVI) and an internet-based service, also faced renewed pressures in 2009. CONATEL extended the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television to the cable industry, requiring domestic network operators to clear time for presidential addresses (cadenas) and state advertising, free of charge. On December 22, CONATEL announced that “international” stations would be defined as any cable or satellite channel on which foreign programming accounts for at least 70 percent of the content. Consequently, RCTVI could not qualify.
Journalists—largely but not exclusively from private media—continued to be intimidated, beaten, threatened, and detained, or have their equipment destroyed or confiscated. In January 2009, gunmen shot and injured political editor Rafael Finol of the pro-Chavez daily El Regional in Acarigua. In February, the progovernment group La Piedrita claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on independent journalists and threatened Globovision and the director of RCTV. Individuals believed to be employed or supported by the state assaulted Grupo Capriles newspaper reporters during a street protest in Caracas in July, criticizing them as “oligarchs” and “enemies of the people.” One of the attackers, a broadcaster with the state-owned Avila television station, was later arrested. In August, a group of at least 30 progovernment activists with the Venezuelan Patriotic Union (UPV) attacked the Globovision offices with tear gas, injuring a police officer. Past cases of harassment of opposition media have not been investigated sufficiently. Top officials also frequently engage in negative verbal rhetoric against journalists and media outlets that are perceived to be antigovernment, while opposition-aligned media owners respond in a similar fashion.
Although murders of journalists are relatively rare, with six reporters killed in the past decade, two Venezuelan journalists were murdered in separate incidents in January 2009. Jacinto Lopez of El Impulso was kidnapped and shot to death, and Orel Sambrano, director of the political weekly ABC de la Semana and Radio America, was shot and killed by gunmen on motorcycles. Two suspects were arrested in connection with Sambrano’s killing in February and July, but the alleged mastermind of the murder remained at large, and no trial date had been set by year’s end. Before his death, Sambrano had been publishing stories about the drug trade in the Valencia area.
While a large portion of the print sector and a number of opposition broadcast outlets remain hostile toward the government, their share of the market has declined in recent years, as the government has canceled or taken over private outlets’ licenses. Mass media investment and usage remain a top priority for the Venezuelan government, which relies on some 238 radio stations, 28 television channels, 340 publications, and 125 websites to disseminate its political platform. Venezuela’s leading newspapers are privately owned, though dependence on government advertising encourages the papers to avoid critical coverage or politically sensitive topics. Self-censorship is also practiced regularly due to harassment and threats of fines or closures. The government began publishing a new newspaper in September 2009, though the only other government-run paper, Diario Vea, has a low circulation.
The government maintains control over most of the free-to-air broadcast media. For a number of years, prominent private networks have decidedly avoided confrontation with the government, minimizing if not eliminating their criticism of the Chavez administration. After toning down its anti-Chavez line, Venevision had its license renewed for another five years in 2007, as did Televenin 2008. During a March 2009 broadcast of his weekly television show, Chavez ordered the government leadership at all levels to investigate radio stations and newspapers, determining their content and owners. This declared “media war” with the opposition also extends to material on the internet.
By the fall of 2009, Venezuela had around 8.3 million internet users, for a penetration rate of some 31 percent. Broadband connections and both fixed and mobile telephony were also expanding rapidly. While internet use is generally unrestricted, there were some repressive actions during the year. In July, the authorities arrested Gustavo Azocar, a newscaster and political commentator for the local television station Televisora del Tachira and a correspondent for the national daily El Universal. Azocar had been openly critical of the state and central government, deploring instances of Venezuelan censorship and self-censorship in the local and international media. He was held in contempt of court for allegedly blogging about his case and violating a gag order. By mid-December, his trial had been postponed after six hearings, and he remained in jail at year’s end.