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Venezuela8 March 2006

Outcry over arrest of TV journalist in Táchira state

Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm today about the imprisonment of TV journalist Gustavo Azócar Alcalá, a critic of President Hugo Chávez and governor Ronald Blanco La Cruz of the eastern state of Táchira, where he lives. A judge yesterday ordered Azócar’s detention for an indefinite period while he is investigated on six-year-old charges of fraud and embezzling public funds.

“It is not up to us to take a position on the substance of the case against Azócar,” the press freedom organisation said. “But we condemn his detention for an unlimited period, which has the effect of silencing a journalist known for criticising the local and national authorities. And we condemn it all the more as the prosecutor’s office has recognised that its case is incomplete.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “Regardless of his role in the offences of which he is accused, the fact that he is the subject of a judicial investigation does not mean he must be detained.”

Azócar presents a programme called “Café con Azócar” on the privately-owned regional TV station Televisora de Táchira, which is based in the city of San Cristóbal, the state capital. He is also a correspondent for the national daily El Universal.

The charges date back to a complaint brought by Governor Blanco in 2000 accusing him of failing to comply with a contract to broadcast Táchira state lottery spots on the radio programme he presented at that time.

The prosecutor’s office issued an order for his arrest on the grounds that he never responded to a summons. After being arrested and detained on 6 March at police headquarters in San Cristóbal, he appeared yesterday before state judge Ciro Heraclio Chacón, who ordered his immediate transfer to Santa Ana on the outskirts of the city. He is supposed to held there until the investigation is completed. No date has been set for a subsequent hearing.

Azócar’s lawyer, Jésus Vivas Terán, denied that his client had failed to responded to summonses in the past. He also alleged irregularities in the proceedings against Azócar, pointing out that the prosecutor’s office had acknowledged to him a few days ago that the case was incomplete.

Azócar is known both for criticising the Chávez government and exposing irregularities in the state administration implicating the governor. When arrested, he said he was been held on the governor’s orders because of his work as a journalist. His lawyer said he could not be guilty of the charges brought against him because he was not authorised to sign contracts on behalf of the radio station.

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