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Harassment and obstruction to the press in Venezuela

By Reporters Without Borders

In early January 2003, the Spanish news agency EFE received three bomb threats after Leopoldo Castillo, presenter of the "Alo Ciudadano" programme on the TV station Globovisión, claimed the agency had said opposition demonstrations were led by "bosses." The EFE bureau chief denied this.

Dozens of supporters of President Hugo Chávez dismantled the installations of TV stations Venevisión and Globovisión in a main street of Caracas on 3 January to prevent them covering an opposition demonstration planned there.

Opposition supporters gathered in front of the Caracas offices of the state-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela (RNV) on 4 January to protest against its allegedly biased news coverage. They faced government supporters who came to defend the station. One of the radio's defenders was serious wounded by a gunshot from a passing car.

A written and audio message was sent on 5 January to TV stations Globovisión, RCTV, Venevisión and Televén and to journalists critical of Chávez warning that a "people's supreme court" had sentenced to death "all journalists and commentators" on the main privately-owned TV stations for "betraying the country." The message said the sentences could be carried by anyone who met one of the targets.

Prosecutor-general Isaias Rodríguez said on 7 January he had made a court request to force privately-owned anti-government TV stations to stop their continuous coverage of the opposition general strike because of the danger such images posed to children deprived of their normal programmes.

Chávez supporters stole the camera of Antonio Rodríguez, of the daily El Regional, on 9 January in the northwestern city of Zulia while he was covering an opposition demonstration.

The press room at Caracas police detective headquarters was closed on 11 January after journalists reported on a press conference by a spokesman for a group of soldiers who said they were "lawfully rebelling" again the government.

President Chávez threatened on 12 January to cancel the broadcasting licences of the country's main radio and TV stations for supporting opposition attempts to overthrow the government. He said they were abusing their powers by only publicising the opposition and its general strike and that the government would no longer tolerate such "war propaganda." Chávez supporters threw stones, bottles and petrol bombs at the offices of Radio Contacto in El Tocuyo (in the western state of Lara) on 13 January after a demonstration by the opposition Coordinadora Democrática there.

Chávez supporters damaged the hallway of a Caracas building on 14 January and threatened its inhabitants for allowing the TV stations Venevisión and CMT to install equipment there to cover an opposition demonstration in the street outside.

The infrastructure ministry informed Globovisión, RCTV and Televén on 20 January that administrative proceedings would be taken against them for "inciting rebellion and disrespect for institutions and lawful authorities." Televén was also informed on 30 January and Venevisión on 5 February.

They were also accused of not keeping to programme schedules for children and inciting people to commit crimes such as not paying taxes. The charges were based on the content of opposition TV ads put out by the stations, which the ministry said it would study. The stations face a fine, suspension of programmes or loss of their broadcasting licences. By the end of the year, no action had been made on these matters.

The government suspended the sale of foreign currency on 21 January and introduced exchange control on 5 February. All foreign exchange operations would have to be authorised by a government commission, CADIVI, headed by a retired army captain who took part in Chávez' failed attempted to seize power in 1992. Chávez warned on 4 February that there would be "not a single dollar for the coup plotters." Most papers and magazines are threatened because they import their newsprint. But by the end of the year, the measure had not been used to close down any media outlet.

Radio Coro 780 Am, in the northwestern state of Falcón, was told on 22 January it would be prosecuted for technical irregularities found during an inspection on 30 October 2002. It was told it had 10 days to repair standby transmission equipment and present a technical plan to the national telecommunications commission, Conatel, which oversees government licences. The head of the radio, José Jordán Flores, said the move was "out of proportion" when there was legally still time for the station to comply with the demands of the inspectors.

The daily El Nacional reported on 27 January that protestors had staged a demonstration outside the home of Jesús Romero Anselmi, head of the state-run VTV, by banging metal pots, a form of protest used against prominent people the opposition deems too close to the government and also staged in restaurants, planes and stadiums.

Luis Felipe Oviedo, boss of Radio Class, was detained for two hours in a military vehicle by national guardsmen in San Carlos (in the northwestern state of Cojedes) on 28 January while covering an opposition demonstration.

Representatives of the local council for the rights of children and teenagers in the western city of Táchira began legal action on 30 January against the station Televisora Regional del Táchira (TRT) for relaying the programmes of Globovisión, which was accused of not respecting the rules about a minimum number of programmes for children.

The radio station Amiga 105.7, in El Hatillo (in the northern state of Miranda) was closed on 4 February by Conatel and the political police (DISIP) for tax irregularities, which its directors, Roberto Martínez and Adelso Sandoval, denied. They said that after two state inspections, they had not been notified of any irregularities and that the closure came as the station was about to broadcast criticism of a law on the social responsibility of radio and TV stations.

A group of pro-Chávez police in Caracas threatened on 6 February to use force against certain media outlets if they continued to report on their activities inside the city police force, which is considered an opposition stronghold. About 50 dissident officers had enabled the government to seize all the force's weaponry before the opposition general strike began in December 2002.

Conatel called on Globovisión on 10 February to comply with the requirement to broadcast at least three hours a day of programmes for children between 15:00 and 20:00. Until then the all-news station had never broadcast childrens' programmes but had not been troubled by the authorities for not doing so. It had given continuous coverage to the opposition general strike since it began in early 2002.

Based on a tax inspection begun in November 2001, Conatel called on Globovisión on 11 February to pay more than 150 million bolivars (96,000 euros) for failing to pay 51.6 million bolivars (33,000 euros) in taxes. The total comprised 48.9 million bolivars (31,000 euros) in interest for late payment and a fine of 55.2 million bolivars (35,000 euros). The station's chief, Alberto Federico Ravell, said it didn't "owe this wretched government a cent." He said it was a political manoeuvre. Before the opposition strike began, President Chávez had said some media outlets, which he did not name, owed a lot of taxes.

A vehicle belonging to Venevisión, parked outside parliament in Caracas, was damaged on 11 February by suspected Chávez supporters as a station crew was inside covering the start of debate on a proposed law about the social responsibility of radio and TV stations.

Parliament adopted the measure on a first reading the same day. The law was meant to adapt programmes to young audiences and set categories of violent and sexual material, which could be only broadcast at certain times of the day. Failure to comply would be punishable by a range of fines from small to very large. It would punish broadcasting of "messages promoting, excusing or advocating disrespect for lawful institutions and authorities" with fines and suspension or cancellation of licences.

A national radio and TV institute, INRT, was set up to monitor its application. The institute's council would order fines but licence suspension or cancellation would be done by the infrastructures ministry. Five of INRT's 11 members are named by the president and the government, three by parliament and three by "radio and TV users" and "independent national producers," two groups supposedly representing civil society but which did not then exist. By the end of the year, the law had not yet been finally passed.

The national tax authority, SENIAT, asked the national journalists' institute, CNP, on 13 February to provide the name, number, address and other details of all its members. It did not say why it wanted them. It was the first time the CNP, which frequently denounces press freedom violations by government supporters, had been asked for such data.

SENIAT announced in early March that it was investigating whether political ads broadcast by TV stations during the opposition general strike had been free of charge, in which case the stations owed tax on donations. SENIAT chief Trino Alcides Díaz denied at a press conference that the move was political and said it would be extended to newspapers and radio stations.

Ibeyise Pacheco, managing editor of the daily Así es la Noticia, columnist in the daily El Nacional and presenter of a programme on Kyss FM, said on 11 March that many police detectives and political police had gathered outside the radio station in Caracas to arrest her. They presented no warrant to do so.

Milagros Rodríguez and Richard Perez, of the TV station Telemundo, were detained for two hours by the president's personal security force on 14 March after they filming the presidential palace as part of a report on the wedding of the president's daughter. Their film was seized on grounds that it was "strategic" material.

On 4 April, the governor of the northern state of Aragua, Didalco Bolívar, ordered the arrest of Tulio Capriles Hernández, managing editor of the daily El Siglo, for printing an ad for the opposition he said was an incitement to commit a crime. The governor is already suing him for libel for publishing reports that he was incompetent and corrupt.

The Maracaibo daily La Verdad, which often criticises the government, was put under legal embargo on 23 April at the request of the Banco Industrial de Venezuela (BIV) for non-payment of debt. The paper's boss, Juan Carlos Abudel, said the move was political.

Technicians Juan Carlos Flores, of NC Televisión, Tauso Batista, of RCTV, Herbert Fernández, of Venevisión, and Frank González, of Unión Radio, were summoned to political police headquarters on 24 June and questioned about the suspected sabotage of the broadcast of a military parade in the northern city of Valencia to mark the 182nd anniversary of independence.

Intruders broke into the offices of the community radio station Perijanera 95.1 FM, in Machiques (in the northwestern state of Zulia), on 4 July and stole equipment and a transmitter. The station, which had been burgled previously, had been receiving threats for four years. Edy Lugo, secretary of the Perijanera community foundation, said the break-in may have been linked to people in the Machiques town hall and the opposition Acción Democrática party.

Caracas city officials went on 10 July to the Lídice Hospital and in the presence of police closed down the community-run station Catia TV, which is housed there, and the station went off the air. After strong national and international protests, the city agreed on 18 July to hand back the premises and apologised to the station. But by the end of the year, the station had not been returned to its owners.

The supreme court on 15 July upheld sections of the criminal code punishing "insults," rejecting a March 2001 petition that they violated the national constitution and article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to seek, receive and disseminate information. Some of the sections provide for criminal punishment for insulting government officials and state institutions.

A parcel bomb exploded on 21 July near the offices of Unión Radio in Caracas, scattering leaflets threatening journalists and the media and signed by an unknown "Bolivarian Liberation Front." Nobody was hurt in the small blast. Some of the leaflets threatened Marta Colomina, of Unión Radio and Televén, who is a fierce critic of President Chávez.

A bomb was thrown at the studios of Television Regional del Tachira (TRT) in San Cristobal (near the Colombian border) on 5 August. It too contained leaflets signed by the Front. They denounced "media terrorism." The bomb caused no damage or casualties. An enquiry was opened.

Pro-Chávez supporters demonstrated outside the main Caracas offices of Globovisión on 9 August protesting against the station's editorial stance and against several of its journalists, including presenter Orlando Urdaneta. The protesters included members of two pro-government organisations.

Fifteen armed police in Barquisimeto stopped the vehicle of Miguel Henrique Otero, managing editor of the daily paper El Nacional, as he left a press conference on 13 August, forced him and his two daughters to get out and searched it and the passengers' baggage for half an hour. They gave no reason and presented no warrant. Otero said it was a bid to intimidate him for the stands taken by the paper.

Police defused a home-made bomb on at the fifth floor of a building in Caracas on 24 September. The offices of the correspondent of the Valencia daily El Carabobeńo were on the floor below and on the other side of the street were the offices of the daily El Universal. Both papers oppose the government.

Dozens of people hurled stones and bottles at the windows and doors of the radio station Horizonte 1260 AM, in the northern state of Yaracuy, in the early hours of 27 September, causing significant damage. It was not known who the attackers were. The station had given balanced coverage of opposition and government activities and had never received any threats.

Conatel officials went on 3 October to the offices of Globovisión and seized equipment needed to cover events live. Antenna on the hills above the city were also seized. Conatel chief Alvis Lezama said the station was suspected of using unauthorised frequencies. Globovisión boss Alberto Federico Ravell said it was an attack on freedom of expression and that without live coverage the station could only operate at half-speed. Conatel announced on 9 December that the station was being fined 582 million bolivars (372,000 euros) and that the seized equipment would not be returned. The station appealed to the supreme court.

A grenade was thrown at the offices of Conatel during the night of 3-4 October, causing some damage. Information minister and former Conatel director Jesse Chacón said it had been thrown by two men on a motorbike and that the attack was a response to the previous day's seizure of the Globovisión equipment, which had sparked a violent demonstration in front of Conatel offices.

Five people broke into the studios of the community radio station Parroquiana 90.1 FM, in San José de Perijá, near Machiques (near the Colombian border) on 11 October. They interrupted broadcasting, destroyed equipment and threatened to burn down the premises before setting upon presenter Antonio Bencomo and producer Luz Mely Morán. The station's chief, Hersilia León, said two officials of the opposition Acción Democrática were among the attackers. The station had criticised them for using the town's public buses for their personal ends.

Political police in the northeastern state of Anzoátegui prevented journalists on 13 October from covering the eviction from company housing of PDVSA workers sacked after the opposition strike earlier in the year. José Sequea, correspondent for the dailies El Progreso and La Prensa, was detained after he crossed a police barrier and took photos with his digital camera. He was forced to erase them.

Government supporters invaded the radio station AM Mundial Zulia, in Maracaibo (near the Colombian border) on 11 December and prevented the broadcast of the programme "Para estar al dia" presented by Rafael Mejias, who had said he favoured a referendum to force President Chávez to resign. He also regularly criticised the local pro-government mayor.

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