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Venezuela7 April 2006

Supreme court drops charges of “false statements” against anti-Chávez columnist

The Venezuelan supreme court decided on 4 April to drop charges of “false statements” against Ibéyise Pacheco, a columnist and outspoken opponent of President Hugo Chávez’s government. The charges were brought by state prosecutor Didier Rojas in 2004 over a claim in her El Nacional column that a plot against Chávez opponents was planned in the presidential palace.

The ruling was issued by Eladio Aponte Aponte, the supreme court judge in charge of the case, who found that the right of defence was not respected in earlier hearings.

Reporters Without Borders welcomed the decision, given the current climate of tension and hostility between the government and the privately-owned news media, and said it could offer an opportunity to relaunch a dialogue in Venezuela about press rights.

23.03.06 - Release of two journalists offers chance for another look at controversial press laws

Reporters Without Borders today welcomed the release of two journalists in the past few days, even if they are still awaiting trial, and suggested this was the right time to take another look at Venezuela’s press laws.

Ibéyise Pacheco of the El Nacional daily was released from house arrest on 21 March, while Gustavo Azócar Alcalá, the presenter of the programme “Café con Azócar” on the Televisora del Táchira regional TV station and an El Universal correspondent, was released from a prison near San Cristóbal in the western state of Táchira on 22 March.

“We hope these releases will help clear the air between the government and privately-owned news media,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They should also offer the opportunity for both sides to undertake a concerted reexamination of the law on the social responsibility of the broadcast media and the criminal code reform law, which have provisions that violate press freedom.”

The organisation added: “The need for this debate is underscored by the fact that the attorney-general has himself referred 25 of the new criminal code’s articles to the supreme court on the grounds of unconstitutionality.”

An outspoken critic of President Hugo Chávez and his government, Pacheco was the target of two libel suits by Col. Angel Bellorín for claiming in her El Nacional column that he had used forged diplomas to become a lawyer. As a result of one of the lawsuits, she was initially given a nine-month prison sentence that was reduced on 15 March to house arrest with permission to continue working. Finally, the house arrest was lifted on 21 March.

In the other case, she acknowledged to the plaintiff that she was wrong. Under article 492 of the criminal code, punishment is annulled when the plaintiff forgives the offence. Pacheco said the lawsuit was dropped after an arrangement was reached between the two sides.

But Pacheco still faces prosecution on a charge of “false statements” brought by state prosecutor Didier Rojas over a claim in her “En Privado” column in El Nacional on 9 May 2003 that the kidnapping and execution of Chávez opponents had been planned in the presidential palace. She appeared before a Caracas court on 14 January on this charge and the case is still pending.

Azócar has been charged with fraud and embezzling public funds as a result of a complaint brought by Táchira state governor Ronald Blanco La Cruz. On 7 March, a San Cristóbal judge ordered that he should be held in the nearby prison of Santa Ana until the investigation was completed. But his lawyers appealed and, in special hearing on 22 March, the judge reversed his decision and ordered Azócar’s release.

Despite these encouraging developments, the law on the social responsibility of the broadcast media that was adopted on 24 November 2004 and the criminal code reform that took effect on 16 March 2005 (see our previous releases) continue to be a source of great tension between the government and privately-owned press. On 21 March, the head of the TV station Globovisión, Federico Ravell, asked the supreme court to quash the social responsibility law on the grounds that it “favours self-censorship.”

The supreme court was already asked to overturn parts of the criminal code reform on 22 November in a petition from within the government, namely attorney-general Isaías Rodríguez. At the time of its adoption, Rodríguez said he found some of its provisions to be “excessively punitive.” In his petition, he asked the court to overturn 25 of the new criminal code’s 546 articles on the grounds of unconstitutionality, especially those concerning the crime of “insult.” The court has so far agreed to modify the form of these articles but has not yet ruled on their substance.

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in the annual report
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