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Colombian Supreme Court drops suit against columnist

29 Aug

The Colombian Supreme Court announced on August 27, 2012, that it would drop a defamation complaint against prominent journalist Cecilia Orozco Tascón, according to news reports. Five days earlier, the court released a statement saying it would file charges against Orozco, who writes a widely read column in the Bogotá daily El Espectador. The court also criticized a column by another journalist, María Jimena Duzán, which was published in the weekly Semana magazine.

This unprecedented decision by the court’s criminal chamber was widely criticized in Colombia, according to local press reports. 

In the August 27 statement withdrawing the complaint, the court reiterated its objections to the journalists’ columns, but said that for the country’s sake it would “put aside the justices’ personal interest in making a judicial claim in respect of their honor and reputations.”

In her August 22 column, Orozco had criticized the courts for removing magistrate Iván Velásquez from his position as chief of the court’s investigative unit. Velásquez was a key figure in uncovering financial and political links between public officials and now-disbanded illegal right-wing paramilitary groups. Orozco questioned the court’s official explanation that Velásquez had simply completed his term, and suggested that his removal was the result of pressure from implicated politicians who wanted to derail the ongoing court investigations. The journalist also suggested that many of the Supreme Court judges had earned their jobs as a result of political favors.

The Supreme Court denied Orozco’s charges and said her language offended the honor of the court. The court also said the column was “unfounded,” “twisted,” and “denigrating.” Orozco told Bogotá’s RCN Radio that she stood by “every comma” in her column.

Duzán’s August 19 column criticized a series of changes by the court that she said gave deferential treatment to politicians, as it could result in lighter prison sentences for officials convicted of crimes in comparison with regular citizens. She also criticized the court’s decision to extradite a major paramilitary figure to the United States on drug charges rather than make him face trial in Colombia for the massacre of civilians.

The Supreme Court denied the allegations and criticized the column, calling it “biased.”

“I stand by what I wrote,” Duzán told CPJ. “The court should respond to these problems rather than trying to put columnists on trial.”

from Committee to Protect Journalists http://cpj.org/2012/08/colombian-supreme-court-drops-suit-against-columni.php

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Arrest warrant issued for Tunisian TV director

29 Aug

Tunisian authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Sami Fehri. (AFP)

New York, August 29, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about an arrest warrant issued against the head of a Tunisian television station, whose news and programming are often seen as critical of the current government.

A court in Tunis, the capital, issued the warrant on Friday for Sami Fehri, founder of the private television station Ettounsiya TV, which was launched after the 2011 revolution, according to news reports. Fehri, who had close ties to the former regime of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is seen as a critic of the current government, news reports said. The warrant follows the suspension last week of Fehri’s satirical TV show on Ettounsiya TV, whose news coverage is also often seen as critical of the government, news reports said. The show, Ellogique Essiyassi (Political Logic), features puppets of prominent politicians from the ruling Ennahda party, the reports said.

Fehri is also general director of the media production company Cactus Productions. Authorities have charged Fehri with improperly using government funds to create Cactus Productions during an unspecified time in the 1990s, according to news reports. Fehri’s partner at the time was Belhassen Trabelsi, brother-in-law of then-President Ben Ali. The charge, filed under Article 96 of the penal code, carries a 10-year prison term, the reports said. The journalist has not been arrested yet, news reports said.

In an interview with a local radio station, Fehri said he believed the charges were in reprisal for his satirical show and said he had received a phone call from Lotfi Zitoun, the prime minister’s adviser, who expressed dissatisfaction with the TV outlet. Zitoun denied Fehri’s claim that his arrest warrant was politically motivated. “Fehri was arrested because of his involvement with financial corruption cases,” news reports quoted the adviser as saying.

“Given the timing of these charges against Sami Fehri, we believe they are politically motivated,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

The National Union of Tunisian Journalists issued a statement on Saturday condemning the arrest warrant against Fehri as a “serious intervention of the government in media affairs.”

These actions follow recent appointments of new heads of media outlets over the past several months, the latest of which occurred on August 23, according to news reports. The union has said the government is attempting to place its sympathizers in powerful positions in order to control state-run media coverage, according to news reports.

An employee with Ettounsiya TV has also been targeted. Early Sunday, a group of unidentified men on motorcycles assaulted Slim Trabelsi (no relation to Belhassen Trabelsi), a cameraman for the station, in a dark alley, according to news reports. The assailants used Sami Fehri’s name and said, “We will catch you one by one,” the reports said. Trabelsi suffered bruises in the attack and sought treatment at a hospital after filing a police complaint, news reports said.

  • For more data and analysis on Tunisia, visit CPJ’s Tunisia page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists http://cpj.org/2012/08/arrest-warrant-issued-for-tunisian-tv-director.php

Tunisia – Old-style repression resurfaces to threaten freedom of expression in new Tunisia, says IFEX-TMG

29 Aug

29 August 2012

A hundred Tunisian journalists gathered on 22 August in the Kasbah, Tunis to criticising appointments in the public media.

A hundred Tunisian journalists gathered on 22 August in the Kasbah, Tunis to criticising appointments in the public media.

El Watan

(IFEX-TMG) – 29 August 2012 – In the wake of recent government appointments to heads of prominent media outlets, as well as attacks on journalists, writers and artists, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members, expresses serious concern over what has been a wave of setbacks for freedom of expression in Tunisia.

The IFEX-TMG strongly condemns the increasing use of violence and threats against journalists, artists and writers by police and ultra-conservative groups, and the government’s failure to put an end to the impunity of those carrying out these attacks. Furthermore, members of the media are in the midst of an ongoing battle to safeguard the freedoms gained during the democratic transition period, after the revolution.

Lack of transparency and consultation

On 22 August 2012, the Tunisian government appointed Imane Bahroun as the head of National Television and Lotfi Touati, a former security officer, as director of media group Dar Assabah, the company which publishes two influential daily newspapers and a weekly magazine.

The government had relieved former Dar Assabah director, Kamel Sammari, of his duties despite plans by the company’s board to discuss the issue on 15 September 2012. The move was strongly condemned by journalists and public figures, who protested outside the building for several days and ran blank front pages in Assabbah and Le Temps in solidarity. The National Syndicate for Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) has strongly condemned the removal and has since called for a strike on 15 September 2012 to express its concerns about the erosion of media freedoms.

Both of these new appointments were made without consultation with relevant media bodies such as the SNJT, who along with several political parties, rejected the decision as lacking transparency. This is the second time the government has appointed directors of public media unilaterally and without consultation, after appointments were made to public service media in January 2012. These were later rescinded after a public outcry.

The IFEX-TMG considers the appointments a setback on promises made by the government to act transparently and to safeguard media freedom. “Instead of introducing fair media laws after proper consultation, the government has created a legislative dead zone, and given itself sole freedom to exploit it,” said Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship, a member of the IFEX-TMG.

Arrests and intimidation in the workplace

On 25 August 2012, the Court of Appeal in Tunis issued an order to arrest Sami Fehri, the director of Attounisia TV station on charges of financial impropriety at a production company he co-owned that was contracted by the national TV station prior to the revolution. His arrest came two days after he was told the government was annoyed by his satirical programme the Political Logic, in which he criticised the government and Ennahda party leaders including Rachid Al-Ghannouchi. Fehri declared before his arrest that Lutfi Zaitoun, the Prime Minister’s media advisor, called him and asked him to suspend the programme. If convicted, he faces up to ten years in prison.

According to Fehri’s lawyer, the arrest violated the Tunisian Penal Code and the accused was not given the right to defend himself nor to be informed about the charges against him. “The lawyer’s explanation shows the case is purely political,” said the Tunis Centre for Freedom of Press.

Other journalists have been pressured at work. On 21 August 2012, Boutheina Gouia, who presents the News and Rumour programme on national radio, was informed by her boss that she was suspended for hosting SNJT officials whom she invited to discuss the latest appointment of managers to the national TV and Assabah newspaper.

The guests on the programme criticised the government’s approach to dealing with the public media. “There has been a change in the attitude of employees with the national radio, it looks like a policy of intimidation has succeeded,” Gouia told the IFEX-TMG.

As part of the pattern of intimidation, previously on 6 July 2012, Nadia Al-Hadawi, a journalist at the national radio, was prevented from entering the building where she was supposed to present her morning programme with well-known writer Naziha Rjiba, a critic of the government.

The IFEX-TMG says the suspension of Gouia appears to be an arbitrary act designed to punish her for exercising her right to freedom of expression, and an attempt to deter others from criticising government actions.

Physical and verbal attacks by police and Salafist groups

The IFEX-TMG is also alarmed at a number of recent physical and verbal attacks on journalists that have taken place in Tunis and other cities, coming at the hands of police, union members and ultra-conservative religious groups (also referred to as Salafists.) On 6 August 2012, Monji Akasha, a journalist with Sfax Radio, was attacked by some of the Housing and Planning Office’s union members while covering strikes in the Sfax area.

Also on 6 August, journalist Sihem al-Mohammedi and photographer Abdul Hamid Al-Omary from Al-Hiwar Attounisi TV station, journalist Nai’ma Al-Sharmeeti from Arabiske TV station, and journalist Seif Eddin Al-Ameri from Akhir Khabar online news site were physically attacked by police on Avenue Bourguiba while covering the violent dispersal of protestors by police officers. Al-Omary suffered injuries to his legs after being badly beaten by the police.

Around the same time, on 5 August, Tunisian blogger Lina ben Mhenni was reportedly deliberately targeted and beaten by police during a demonstration on Avenue Bourguiba.

On 14 August 2012, ultra-conservative Islamists attacked the comedian Lutfi Al-Abdali and prevented him from presenting his show in the town of Manzil Bourguiba after they claimed he was offensive to Islam.
On 23 August 2012, a group of Salafist men physically attacked and severely beat prominent poet Sghir Awlad Ahmed after he appeared on a programme on Attounisia TV in which he criticised Ennahda and its leaders. Afterwards, Awlad Ahmed said, “No officers or officials will be saved from the bombs of my poetry and prose if they continue to turn a blind eye to such attacks.”

On 24 August 2012, poet Mohammed Al-Hadi Al-Waslati was attacked by a group of Salafist men in Tunis. He was later taken to hospital and is still in a critical condition.

In an interview broadcast on 25 August 2012 on Express FM Radio, the Minister of Culture, Mehdi Mabrouk, stated that the phenomenon of Salafist attacks has to be confronted but claimed the situation was under control. This contradicts the reality that attacks are reportedly on the increase.

The IFEX-TMG calls on the authorities, including the Ministry of Culture, to investigate these attacks and bring the perpetrators to justice in order to create a safe environment in which journalists, artists and writers can work freely, without threat or censorship.

The IFEX-TMG once again calls on the government to implement Decree 2011-115 (also known as the new Press Code), especially article 14, which guarantees the protection of journalists from harassment and attacks and criminalises any act of violence against them.

“We think that the government is buying time with too many promises and no actions. We are worried about freedom of the press in Tunisia. Many factors indicate that that there is a setback regarding freedom of expression. Attacks on writers, journalists and artists continue without any punishment or action. This situation takes us back to 1988 when Ben Ali had a U-turn on freedom of expression. We must fight against that,” says SNJT Chair Najiba Hamrouni.

The IFEX-TMG states that by implementing the media laws which came into force in November 2011, better safeguards would be put in place to protect freedom of expression. It therefore urges the government to implement Decree 2011-115 and Decree 2011-116, which laid the groundwork for a newly independent broadcast media with the creation of the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communications (HAICA), which will have the power to appoint directors of the public media.

via IFEX

In Venezuela, a media landscape transformed

29 Aug

In more than a decade in power, President Hugo Chávez Frías has overseen the transformation of nearly every aspect of Venezuelan society, including the media. When Chávez came to office in 1999, he enjoyed the support of the country’s established private media. But the relationship soon soured, and in April 2002 he was briefly deposed in a coup that he alleges was carried out with the support of key media owners. Today, several of the most critical media outlets are either gone or scared into silence, and a vast state media presence echoes the government’s positions. By Joel Simon

Hugo Chávez at a campaign rally in Maracay, Venezuela, on July 1. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

The highly polarized presidential campaign under way in Venezuela pits Chávez against former Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski. The polarization is dramatically reflected in the press, with the private media largely backing Capriles and the state media mounting a full-throated appeal in support of Chávez. The cacophony drowns out meaningful debate, and in the context of the electoral campaign the public is the loser. Through its massive state media presence and its use of censorship, legal harassment, and administrative sanctions, the Chávez government sets clear limits on public dissent, as this report shows.

More in this report
Press under assault
State media target critics
Globovisión harassed
Hackers hound press
Audio report
Media under seige
In print
Download the pdf
In other languages
Español

This is CPJ’s fourth special report on Venezuela since Chávez took office; reading them in sequence paints a clear picture of just how dramatically the media environment has declined during this period. The first report, “Radio Chávez,” published in February 2001, described a vibrant media scene in which the president with increasing frequency took over the airwaves to deliver long-winded diatribes on everything from “the joys of having a girlfriend to ‘the revolutionary process in the universities.’” It ended by noting ominously, “[I]f all revolutions eat their young, Venezuelan journalists had better hope that Chávez doesn’t get too hungry.”

The second report, called “Cannon Fodder” and published following the failed 2002 coup attempt, described a series of physical attacks in which beat reporters “caught between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías’ inflammatory rhetoric and the active political role that media publishers and editors have taken find themselves victims of attacks from the public.”

CPJ’s third report, 2007’s “Static in Venezuela,” recounted in detail the government’s failure to renew the license of critical broadcaster RCTV and demonstrated how the deepening media crackdown was provoking sweeping self-censorship. In the years since that report was published, RCTV has been silenced along with dozens of other critical broadcasters; journalists have been jailed for allegedly defaming officials; and regulators, together with a judiciary closely allied with the executive, have imposed censorship on sensitive coverage.

The decline of Venezuelan journalism has broad implications not only for the country, but for Latin America as a whole. Nearly all of Chávez’s strategies to rein in and isolate critical journalists have been emulated by sympathetic governments across the region, from Nicaragua to Ecuador. Today, Venezuela is part of a bloc of counties within the Organization of American States looking to dismantle its system of human rights protection, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its special rapporteur for freedom of expression.

In the 1980s, as Latin America turned to democracy after a decade of brutal dictatorships, electoral politics took hold across the region. Chávez himself won at the polls and took office with widespread support from the Venezuelan public. But he has used his time in office to undermine rather than develop the institutions of democratic government.

With Chávez battling cancer, he must confront his legacy. While he focuses on consolidating the Bolivarian Revolution, Chávez’s failure to support and nurture independent institutions—including the media—has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. Regardless of who prevails at the polls, rolling back a decade of media repression and fostering a climate that is more open and more tolerant will be a key challenge for the next administration.

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He has written widely on media issues, contributing to Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Review of Books, World Policy Journal, Asahi Shimbun, and The Times of India. He has led numerous international missions to advance press freedom.

from Committee to Protect Journalists http://cpj.org/reports/2012/08/in-venezuela-a-media-landscape-transformed.php

Venezuela’s private media wither under Chávez assault

29 Aug

Published August 29, 2012

CARACAS
It seemed like a routine story. In March, José Gregorio Briceño, governor of Venezuela’s southern state of Monagas, appeared on national television and complained that federal officials were not addressing claims of contaminated water in his state. An oil pipeline managed by the state-run oil company PDVSA had recently burst in the Guarapiche River, which runs through Monagas. News accounts followed with testimonies from independent experts and families with ill children.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías vowed to act—not to investigate potential water contamination, but to counter the “media terrorism” threatening the country. Federal officials complained of political manipulation and a media conspiracy in an election year; Chávez is up for a third six-year term in October. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz announced a new federal injunction requiring journalists to base reports on water quality on a “truthful technical report backed by a competent institution.” Otherwise, journalists risked “destabilizing” public order, and could incur fines or jail time.

More in this report
CPJ’s recommendations
Introduction: Media transformed
State media target critics
Globovisión harassed
Hackers hound press
Audio report
Media under seige
In print
Download the pdf
In other languages
Español

“So what happens if a woman comes out of her house with a glass of brown water or a child with diarrhea? We can’t transmit it. And what if the community protests over dirty water? We still can’t transmit it?” said Silvia Alegrett, president of the local journalists’ group Colegio Nacional de Periodistas. Alegrett and other Venezuelan journalists said that while the government cites water quality studies, obtaining copies of such studies can be difficult. “Officials will wave the studies in the air and say, ‘What the press or activists say isn’t true.’ But then we won’t see the reports,” Alegrett said.

The injunction on water reporting is only the latest addition to a minefield of legislative changes and presidential decrees put forth by Chávez’s administration to restrict the independent media since he took office in 1999. To sidestep the potential fines or prison terms, many journalists and publications censor their own coverage.

The administration has also blocked critical coverage, closed broadcasters, sued reporters for defamation, excluded those it deems unfriendly from official events, and harassed—with the help of government allies and state-run media—critical journalists. The result is that key issues—Chávez’s health, rising unemployment, overcrowded prisons, and the condition of Venezuela’s vital state-run energy sector—are not receiving in-depth, investigative coverage at a critical moment for the country, as Chávez grapples not only with cancer but with an unprecedented challenge for his office from Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of the state of Miranda.

Henrique Capriles Radonski poses an unprecedented challenge to Chávez. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

The gradual dismantling of Venezuela’s more critical and independent press and the building up of a vast state-run media empire is a remarkable reversal of the media landscape prior to Chávez’s rule. Then, major newspapers and television and radio stations were dominated by a private-sector, business-oriented elite determined to shield its audience from leftist and socialist views. When critics accuse Chávez of a media power grab, his loyalists counter that the government effectively democratized the press by wresting control from a powerful oligarchy with its own agenda.

The resulting polarization is reflected in the news coverage leading up to the elections. In February, Venezuela held a primary that resulted in an unexpectedly high turnout and a strong win for Capriles as the opposition coalition candidate, although Chávez still leads most polls. But polls favoring either candidate are questioned, while violence at campaign rallies is often blamed on agents planted by the other side.

As much as the independent press shines its light on Capriles, the vast government-friendly network of television, radio, and print pushes ahead with coverage either negative to Capriles or, at best, superficially informative about his campaign. Meanwhile, nuanced and comprehensive coverage of the Chávez campaign and his party’s proposals is largely absent within the private press. A balanced, probing look at either candidate is hard to find.

“As Chávez has made his presidential power more permanent, we’ve seen more disrespect for the rules of the game,” said Carlos Correa, executive director of Espacio Público, a local free expression group.

 

Legal and regulatory threats intimidate

Years of legislation that tightened Chávez’s grip on the media are paying off. In 2004, lawmakers loyal to Chávez passed a new broadcast law banning content before 11 p.m. that could be considered too violent or sexual for children or could “incite or promote hatred or intolerance” or “disobedience of the current legal order.” In December 2010, legislators in Chávez’s United Socialist Party broadened this statute and extended it to the Internet. Government officials can now order Internet service providers to restrict websites that violate the controls.

Reporters criticized the legislation as vague, noting that it could apply to subjects ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to Venezuela’s escalating violent street crime. While the laws have yet to land a journalist in jail, the threat of prosecution and fines are enough to make most hesitant to test the government’s tolerance, local journalists said.

In 2010, the legislature granted Chávez power to rule by decree, ostensibly to help flood victims, but the move came just weeks before a fresh slate of opposition politicians were to take their parliamentary seats, pre-empting any plans to limit Chávez’s powers.

On June 27, 2009, some demonstrators, left, marched in support of regulators investigating Globovisión, while others, right, marched in support of the broadcaster. (AP/Fernando Llano)

One reporter for a daily newspaper in the coastal city of Maracay told CPJ that her editors have closely heeded the harassment of independent television station Globovisión and the closing in 2007 of RCTV, a popular broadcaster and Chávez critic, and that they make decisions accordingly. “Most of the media in Maracay prefer to just publish what official sources say,” and this is demoralizing to local journalists, said the reporter, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by her editors. For example, newspapers highlighted a government official saying a damaged highway to the Atlantic coast would be fixed in time for an upcoming holiday. Independent photos showed a collapsed bridge, but editors refrained from publishing those or reporting on the road’s decrepit state. “If you write that, it will not be published,” the reporter said. “You give up fighting.” An editor at one of the four dailies in Maracay countered, “That pressure [to go soft on the government] does not exist,” and said any lack of in-depth reporting is a matter of time and resources.

“The threat of lawsuits and insults is working,” said Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Caracas-based daily El Nacional.

Regulatory obstacles also play a role. In 2009, the telecommunications regulator Conatel, whose members can be freely appointed or removed by Chávez, shut down and seized equipment at more than 30 radio stations, with reasons ranging from administrative technicalities to broadcasts about illegal squatters in the face of a housing shortage. Officials said more stations were on their watch list, but did not specify which ones. “The messenger is punished whether or not the information is true,” said Andrés Cañizalez, a professor and media expert at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “It’s tough to prove at times. A radio presenter is suddenly off the air, or a station closes, and you later learn that the government had pulled its advertising.”

Meanwhile, public information has become increasingly difficult to access. The list of reporters allowed at official press conferences is shrinking. Reporters from Globovisión, the country’s last remaining critical TV broadcaster, are often excluded. “If you’re not on the list of approved media outlets—and Globovisión is definitely not on that list—then you’re left standing in the hall,” said Lysber Ramos Sol, who heads Globovisión’s investigative reporting team. She said her reporters only learn about official events through colleagues at other outlets.

A complaint often repeated by independent journalists is that when they are allowed to attend press conferences, government officials ridicule them. Amira Muci, an opinion show host on Radio Victoria in Maracay and the secretary-general of the local branch of the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas, said disrespectful treatment is the norm. “When your questions are uncomfortable or when they don’t have answers, they try to embarrass the reporter,” Muci said. “Or they say you are disrupting the revolutionary process. So many journalists give up and become, in effect, government stenographers. They think it is the only way to survive.”

Julio Rafael Chávez Meléndez, a representative of the National Assembly and vice chairman of its Commission on Media and People’s Power, countered that statement, saying, “Why should the government tolerate so-called journalists who are agents of the opposition and have no real desire to inform the public [and] are bent on serving their own agendas? Why should President Chávez stand for their constant ridicule? Don’t we have a right as a government to stop irresponsible coverage intent on upending Venezuela?”

In February, limitations were set on journalists’ access to the floor of parliament during debates. Once allowed to view proceedings from the parliament gallery, now they must follow on television monitors in the halls outside. The live audio of this transmission is prone to sudden silence, however, with an onscreen explanation that the session is private.

 

Violence and crime are touchy topics

Crime is an especially sensitive subject. Recent polls found that more than 80 percent of Venezuelans nationwide list crime as a top worry. However, law enforcement officials are slow to publish homicide statistics, with the most recent figures dating to 2010. The head of Venezuela’s police force recently told state media that the murder rate in Caracas had dropped in 2012, but he did not provide specific homicide figures—instead, he cited the number of arrests on murder charges. Often, reporters publish their own data based on police reports or compilations by non-governmental groups such as the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, which says there are about 60 murders per year per 100,000 Venezuelans—one of the world’s highest rates.

The newspaper reporter in Maracay said crime statistics that used to receive prominent display in her paper are downplayed, with most such news published in the community section, where local residents write to denounce problems.

Journalists have also been hampered by court rulings to limit publication of photos showing death or violence. In August 2010, the privately owned El Nacional published a photograph showing an overwhelmed Caracas morgue, with naked bodies piled on the tables and floor. A court then issued a temporary injunction banning the newspaper from printing images that contain “blood, guns, alarming messages, or physical aggression that could alter the psychological and moral well-being of children and adolescents.” In response, El Nacional ran the word “Censored” in a blank space on its front page. In a show of solidarity, the independent newspaper Tal Cual reprinted the photograph and incurred a similar court ruling. Injunctions on both papers have since been lifted.

Teodoro Petkoff (AP/Ricardo Moraes)

Teodoro Petkoff, editor of Tal Cual, a former Communist guerrilla and later a government minister, said the incident was just another attempt by the government to control the media. “We are not sensationalistic,” Petkoff said. “We print what we see as important, and right now in Venezuela, we have a serious problem with escalating crime.”

El Nacional’s Otero, who said threats of lawsuits are a permanent fixture at his newspaper, insists that while he does not engage in self-censorship, his reporters will need to be careful with the new restrictions on the issue of water contamination.

At Globovisión, reporters now use terms like “not appropriate for drinking” instead of “contaminated.” “We are saying the same thing with other words. Obviously, this constitutes a certain degree of self-censorship,” said Ricardo Antela, Globovisión’s lead lawyer.

Correa of Espacio Público does not expect much progress on the issue. When his group requested water quality test results for Caracas last year, the environmental ministry responded curtly, saying water in Caracas “is drinkable according to parameters established by the World Health Organization.” A review of the environmental ministry’s website, where reporters are directed for information, shows data only through 2009. The lack of information forces media outlets to rely heavily on pundits and speculation. As a result, the credibility of journalists is suffering. “You can’t believe the state-run media because they might not be telling you the full story,” said Elides Rojas, managing editor of the daily El Universal. “But then you also can’t believe the private media because their views can be so biased, too. In the end, nobody is fully informed.”

 

Ties to Chávez, rather than laws, offer protection

Eleazar Díaz Rangel, the editor of Últimas Noticias, the highest-circulation daily in Venezuela, strongly disagrees with complaints about press freedom. “I always ask for people to show me what can’t be published in Venezuela, and I never get examples,” he said. “Just look at my paper,” he said, flipping through a recent edition of Últimas Noticias, which featured a rally led by opposition candidate Capriles, news of teacher-led protests against unpaid salaries, and updates on Chávez’s cancer treatment. An opinion piece by a local professor argued for the end to Chávez’s rule.

Yet Últimas Noticias is also stacked with government advertising—income that other leading dailies such as El Universal and El Nacional lost long ago. Díaz Rangel’s longtime, cozy relationship with Chávez largely explains the paper’s cushy position. Díaz Rangel has authored books about Chávez that were published by Venezuela’s Ministry of Culture. He is considered a public advocate for views that Chávez endorses. Critics say Díaz Rangel is part of a pro-government media elite, members of which are allowed scope for a certain amount of criticism and then upheld as examples of press freedom.

Another member of this group is Mario Silva, host of “La Hojilla” (The Razor), a state-run nightly television show that largely consists of Silva at his desk with a sheaf of press clippings from papers such as El Nacional (which Silva nicknames “El Nazional”). The camera zooms in on bylines and columnists’ photos circled in yellow highlighter. In one episode, Silva held up an article that included complaints about the government’s housing program for low-income citizens and asked, “Why do these reporters have such tremendous hate for our country?” During Silva’s monologues, wall-size photographs of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—the heroes of Chávez’s socialist revolution—are projected in the background.

“The rules are clear,” said Alegrett of the journalist association. “There are the untouchables and the rest of us.” For journalists willing to challenge rulings and investigations in court, confidence in a fair trial is low. Chávez appointed the majority of Supreme Court justices, who in turn have increasing influence over lower-level judicial appointments. In a case that United Nations special rapporteurs say breached judicial independence, María Lourdes Afiuni Mora, a judge in Caracas, was arrested in 2009 minutes after allowing the release on bail of a businessman and Chávez opponent whose detention she declared arbitrary. The next day, Chávez appeared on state television and called for “toughness” against Afiuni. Within days, she was charged with crimes including corruption and abuse of authority. She was imprisoned for more than a year awaiting trial, and remains under house arrest.

The Afiuni case served as a warning to journalists hoping that the courts might enforce their press freedom rights, said Carlos Ayala Corao, a constitutional lawyer in Caracas and the former president of the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). “They cannot expect a judge to base her decision on the facts at hand—she must consider how the presidency will view the rulings. Go the wrong way, and it’s not just risking dismissal, but jail.”

Julio Rafael Chávez Meléndez in his office. (Monica Campbell)

Some journalists have chosen to take their concerns abroad. In March, a group of reporters and press freedom groups, including Espacio Público, detailed the Chávez government’s use of the judicial system to curtail press freedom at a hearing of the IACHR in Washington, the human rights monitoring body of the Organization of the American States. The hearing coincided with the IACHR annual report, which highlighted allegations of human rights abuses in Venezuela. After the visit, Correo del Orinoco, a government-backed paper, published an article citing only Germán Saltrón, Venezuela’s representative to the IACHR, who accused the non-governmental organizations of preparing to “justify whatever invasion or act of violence to prevent the president from continuing to govern” after the October elections. In July, Chávez announced plans to withdraw Venezuela from the IACHR, its sister court, and the American Convention on Human Rights, claiming the commission was biased.

Meanwhile, Julio Chávez, who pushed forward the 2010 law allowing the president to rule by decree, will continue to promote legislation favoring the administration. He recently won funding for a new “alternative and united” network of state-controlled community radio and TV stations that, he hopes, will become a leading news source. New journalists will be trained and certified at a state-run school and will be obliged to transmit “accurate information.”

“I believe in freedom of expression, but I also don’t think that means there can’t be oversight over information. For years, the private sector had a monopoly on our media, and I’m happy to see that finally change,” Julio Chávez said.

The change, however, has been the pushing of the pendulum from one partisan extreme to another, critics say. “The government is becoming an expert in propaganda,” said Rojas, managing editor of El Universal. “It’s very good at controlling the message.”

During an election year, this means a lack of meaningful reporting on the airwaves and in newspapers, leaving voters ill-informed. But the media landscape is likely to be Hugo Chávez’s legacy well beyond the election.

Monica Campbell is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and former CPJ consultant.