Area: 910,050 sq. km.
Head of state: President Hugo Chavez
President Chávez’ hold on power until 2006 was confirmed by referendum in August 2004. Before the vote, he stepped up efforts to intimidate the hostile privately-owned media and at the end of the year toughened laws against it. Press freedom was eroded a little further.
President Hugo Chávez won a referendum on 15 August 2004 on whether he should be removed from office. The campaign to get rid of him saw a new battle between the mostly opposition-controlled media and the president, who increased his harassment of it.
Chávez declared himself the champion of the country’s poor when he was elected in 1998 and has since hounded the "oligarchic" media at the slightest criticism of his rule, thus encouraging violence against journalists.
A coup d’état briefly overthrew him in April 2002 and the major TV stations did not report the demonstrations calling for his return. An opposition-led general strike from December 2002 to February 2003 that tried in vain to force him out was broadly backed by the main privately-owned media. These stands by the media were used by Chávez as an excuse to chip away at press freedom, which deteriorated further in 2004.
Journalists from media criticising the president were the target of new violence during opposition demonstrations calling for a referendum on whether he should stay in power. Other (though fewer) physical attacks occurred during the vote itself.
Even before the referendum date had been set, the government stepped up its harassment of the media. Military justice officials began an investigation on 22 March of opposition journalist Patricia Poleo for "incitement to revolt," which carried a 24-year prison term, but the case was dropped after the vote.
In the spring, two villas owned by media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, owner of the TV station Venevisión, were raided in connection with a supposed plot by Colombian paramilitary forces against Chávez.
Just two weeks before the referendum, the supreme court validated a law requiring journalists to have a journalism degree and join a journalists’ institute or face a prison sentence. This was seen as a provocation since the matter had been before the court since 1995.
The pro and anti-government media, under pressure from the international community, promised to give more balanced coverage in the days before the vote. Chávez gave up his right to commandeer the broadcast media at any time to make his case. Andres Cańizales, head of the national Press and Society Institute, noted however that he obtained the backing of most provincial radio stations through skilful distribution of official advertising.
The media accepted Chávez’ victory after alleging "massive fraud" during the vote and the privately-owned TV stations were generally less hostile to him during the local elections campaign in late October. It was hard to say by year-end if this was a change of attitude or just lethargy after the opposition’s referendum defeat.
Chávez however immediately resumed his hounding and in early October, Danilo Anderson, a judge in charge of investigating the two-day April 2002 coup, summoned several TV station chiefs and questioned them about their suspected agreement with the man who declared himself president during the coup not to report the pro-Chávez demonstrations. When the judge was murdered on 18 November, government MPs called for the media bosses to be questioned again about their meagre coverage of his death.
Chávez continued to tighten laws concerning the media and a measure on the social responsibility of the media came into force on 7 December, providing for punishment of those who "advocate undermining public order." Parliament amended the criminal code on 9 December to increase prison terms for press offences despite general calls by international bodies for these to be decriminalised. The government thus has wide powers to force self-censorship and punish those who fail to comply.
Journalist and politician Mauro Marcano was murdered in the northeastern part of the country on 1 September but by the end of the year it had not been established that this was due to his work as a journalist.
At year-end, Chávez could still claim he was the country’s most criticised president by the media, but it was also true that the risks journalists took in doing so were never higher.
5 journalists were arrested
57 physically attacked
and 13 media premises attacked or ransacked
"Damn journalist! We’ll sort you out later!"
Freelance photographer Andreina Mujica was frequently set upon by supporters of President Chávez during the December 2002 general strike even though she was working for the pro-government daily Últimas Noticias. She also works for the foreign media. She remembers the tense atmosphere after Chavez’ victory in the 15 August 2004 referendum.
The day after the president won the referendum about whether he should step down, I was stopped by members of his grassroots movement, the Bolivarian Circles.
I was covering the referendum for the New York daily Hoy and was on the Avenue Casanova, in Sabana Grande (Caracas), where Chavez opponents were blocking the street opposite the Gran Melia Hotel, where international observers who had just recognised Chávez’ victory were staying.
I moved away from the hotel entrance to take pictures of the demonstrators without realising that a group of people had surrounded me. They said they belonged to the Bolivarian Circles. They insulted me and warned me to watch out what I photographed. "Damn journalist! Oligarch! We’ll sort you out if we run into you later! We know what you do!" they shouted. Then they shoved me and spat on me.
I decided not to file a complaint because of the circumstances and because it all happened so fast. But I don’t trust Venezuelan police or courts because they aren’t impartial when it comes to physical attacks and threats against journalists.
A law to punish "pro-coup" media
Andrés Cańizález is a researcher at the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) human rights centre and head of the Caracas office of the Press and Society Institute (IPYS), a Latin American press freedom organisation. He talks of his concern about the law on the social responsibility of the broadcast media.
President Hugo Chávez promulgated a law on 7 December 2004 about the social responsibility of the broadcast media after the measure had been approved only by his supporters in parliament. Such a law is not in theory contrary to freedom of expression and information and when it clearly sets out the rights and duties of everyone it can be useful. But several aspects of this law are worrying and we oppose it.
It was conceived two years ago as a reprisal against the main privately-owned media for supporting the opposition to Chávez. Since then, Chávez and his top aides have stressed it would be used to punish "pro-coup" media and even warned they might be shut down.
The law lists 78 possible offences and even though it says it aims to "balance duties, rights and interests," it mentions no rights of the broadcast media, only duties. Some people called for the bill to be amended in its early stages, when it listed only 47 offences. But pro-government MPs prevailed and then increased the number.
The law will be applied by government-controlled bodies, including the national telecommunications commission, Conatel, which is already in charge of issuing operating licences but has no expertise in judging broadcasting content. A suggestion to set up a body qualified to do so but without a government majority among its members was rejected.
The authorities will have censorship powers through Conatel, which will be able to ban "temporarily" the broadcasting of pictures or other content that "promotes, excuses or incites people to war, disturbing public order or committing offences." The law is especially worrying because of the country’s very polarised politics, which the media take part in.