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Venezuela's onslaught against the media could backfire

By Veneconomy

23.02.05 | The Hugo Chávez administration has embarked on a new stage in its onslaught against the media. This time it is going after the international press. The regime has been attacking the Venezuelan media and journalists practically from the start of its term in office, after the first few honeymoon months.

The government’s repression of the media and journalists has manifested itself on a number of different fronts, from verbal and physical aggression to the passing of the “Gag Law” at the end of 2004. This law is full of penalties that can be applied to the media and journalists for “crimes of information and opinion” invented by the regime, as well as a series of rules that flagrantly violate the freedom of Venezuelans to inform and be informed. As a result, the media are, understandably, applying a degree of self-censorship.

What is more, the amendments to the Criminal Code that are about to be passed by the National Assembly include a provision whereby anyone accused of slander or libel will not enjoy the constitutional right to be tried in liberty, and any citizen, journalist or not, could be sent to prison for months or years on the strength a mere accusation filed by an opportunist of the regime.

Now, with its position strengthened by this “triumph” and with the local media neutralized, the government is going after the international press, not so much to intimidate as to discredit reports coming from abroad. Some months ago, they tried, unsuccessfully, to link the British journalist Andy Webb Vidal of The Financial Times with espionage. This week, the Minister of Communication and Information, Andrés Izarra, surprised everyone with accusations against the international press because, in his opinion, it was playing along with the Bush administration and was mounting an aggressive media offensive against the Venezuelan president.

His onslaught included accusations against journalists and other personalities of world renown, among them Michael Shifter, Vice-President for Policy of Inter-American Dialog, Jackson Diehl, an editorialist for The Washington Post, and Phil Gunson, a British journalist who writes for The Miami Herald and The Economist and is the chairman of Venezuela’s Foreign Press Association. Referring to Gunson, Izarra stated that he was “a possible recipient of U.S. funding,” with no proof whatsoever on hand to back the accusation.

It is assumed that this is the first of a series of measures that will be taken against foreign correspondents who criticize the regime, such as harassment, hounding with threats of legal action, claims of libel, raids, and even expulsion from the country.

Maybe these tactics will have some success and get a few to keep quiet or leave the country. However, the majority of Venezuelan and foreign journalists, as well as the media, are committed to providing true, objective information. Getting them to abandon this path will be a tough task for the Chávez administration that will lead it up a blind alley. The more pressure that is put on the international press, the more Venezuela will awaken everyone’s interest, and that is where the whole plan could backfire.

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