Juan Méndez, president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), criticised the fragile rule of law in Venezuela and the tense working conditions for journalists there when he announced on 10 May preliminary conclusions of his 6-10 May fact-finding mission to the country.
He said he was "disappointed" at what he had found during talks the IACHR delegation had had with President Hugo Chávez, opposition figures and representatives of NGOs and civil society about events surrounding the failed coup d’état of 11 April. He stressed the need for a "serious, thorough and credible" enquiry into what happened and the need to punish those responsible.
Méndez deplored the atmosphere of "confrontation" between the authorities and the media which made it difficult and dangerous for journalists to do their job. He criticised inflammatory statements by government figures about journalists as attacks on freedom of expression. But he also called on the media to seriously review the attitude of privately-owned TV stations that blacked out news about pro-Chávez demonstrations on 13 and 14 April.
The IACHR president also stressed the importance of the "national dialogue" proposed by President Chávez after the failed coup but regretted that both government and opposition seemed reluctant to enter into it.
06.05.2002 - Open letter to the IACHR president
RSF asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), during its 6-10 May visit to Venezuela, to investigate violations of press freedom and the public’s right to be informed that occurred between 8 and 14 April, at the time of an attempted coup d’état.
on Human Rights
Organisation of American States
Paris, 6 May 2002
As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visits Venezuela from 6 to 10 May, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which defends press freedom around the world, would like to draw your attention to violations of this freedom and the right to information that occurred in that country between 8 and 14 April at the time of the attempted coup d’état.
9 and 10 April
During the general strike called by several trade unions, the government forced state-licensed TV and radio stations to put out pro-government material on about 35 occasions. This was done under Article 192 of the telecommunications law that allows the government make its voice heard.
Using this law was not only improper in this instance but also violated Article 192 itself which stipulates that it shall only be used for "messages or speeches by the president, vice-president or government ministers."
During these programme interruptions (known as "cadenas"), political, trade union and business figures, as well as journalists from the government TV station, were heard on the air. To get round the situation, the TV stations decided on 10 April to broadcast their own news at the same time by dividing the screen in two.
Photographer Jorge Tortoza, of the daily Diario 2001, was killed while covering violent clashes between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chávez in the centre of Caracas. Tortoza’s driver said he was shot in the head by a man in civilian clothes. He was taken to Vargas Hospital seriously wounded but died shortly after being operated on.
Three other press photographers were wounded in similar circumstances. They were Jonathan Freitas, of the daily Tal Cual, who was slightly wounded in the arm by a bullet, Enrique Hernández, of the state-controlled news agency Venpres, hit on the head by a stone and then in the stomach by a bullet that ricocheted off a wall, and Hernández’ brother Luis Enrique Hernández, of the daily Avance, who was hit by a bullet in the hip. A fourth photographer, Miguel Escalona, of the daily El Carabobeńo, is thought to have been hit on the head with a baseball bat. His equipment was stolen. Another photographer was quoted by the daily Ultimas Noticias and by Tal Cual as saying that a member of the National Guard near the presidential palace told him to "put away that camera because we have orders to shoot anyone with a camera." (original Spanish quote in article sent by Maria Sol).
President Chávez stopped privately-owned TV stations transmitting at about 4 pm, saying they were "irresponsible," had launched a "campaign of defamation" and were "inciting people to violence." The order to shut them down came shortly after they had refused instructions to broadcast only a speech by the president and had instead split their screens in two, with Chávez speaking on one side and film of the apparent repression of the anti-Chávez demonstration on the other. The president demanded broadcast of his speech just as shooting began to be heard in the streets. He cited Article 192 of the broadcasting law.
Later in the day, the offices of the TV station CMT were surrounded for several hours by personnel of the military intelligence service, the DIM. Normal broadcasting facilities were restored at about 10 pm, after a section of the army went over to the - At about that time, the government station Venezolana de Televisión was occupied by the National Guard, which had until then been protecting its installations, and its broadcasts were cut off for fear of reprisals by anti-Chávez forces. The official Venpres news agency also stopped work.
During the day, privately-owned TV stations showed no pictures of street demonstrations by Chávez supporters or of their seizure of the presidential palace. Since the state-owned station was still off the air, only cable TV subscribers could see what was happening by watching foreign stations. The Venezuelan stations have since said they did not show such footage because doing so would have been dangerous for their journalists on the job and that scenes of looting in Caracas could have encouraged similar outbreaks in the provinces. Gustavo Cisneros, president of the Diego Cisneros Organisation and owner of Venevisión, added that the TV silence was also to do with practical considerations, such as the absence of pictures to back up the news reports.
In late afternoon, dozens of people staged a violent demonstration in front of the offices of the privately-owned Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) while incidents broke out and conflicting reports swept the city about the return to power of Chávez. The protesters stoned the building, smashing windows. Despite appeals by the station’s worried journalists for the authorities to ensure their safety, the attacks continued without police intervention. Chávez supporters also demonstrated outside the office of Globovisión and Venevisión and forced them and RCTV to broadcast statements by their leaders. The daily newspapers El Nacional and El Universal were obliged to evacuate their offices after hostile demonstrations outside. At around 8 pm, the government-owned station Venezolana de Televisión returned to the air in the hands of Chávez supporters.
Privately-owned TV stations broadcast no news, except for the all-news station Globovisión, which only put out items from foreign news agencies. Very few daily papers appeared since most had been forced to leave their offices the day before. Only El Globo and Ultimas Noticias were on the streets. However, some papers maintained their online editions, using mostly agency material.
The situation slowly returned to normal with newspapers back on the newsstands and news bulletins once more on TV, except for RCTV and Venevisión. Many journalists and camera crews working for the two stations reportedly did not show up for work, fearing for their safety. Three Venevisión journalists, Claudia Andrade, Jesús Marín and Margarita Rodríguez, fled the country. President Chávez, answering a question at a press conference, called on his supporters to stop attacking and threatening journalists.
In view of the events of 8-14 April, Reporters Without Borders would like to recommend that the IACHR:
Condemns the government’s improper use of the "cadenas" system and rules on how the government should use such powers. RSF considers that a government should be able to make itself heard in exceptional circumstances but that breaking into programmes more than 30 times over two days cannot in any way be justified.
Condemns the suspension of privately-owned TV stations by President Chávez.
Condemns the demonstrations staged in front of media offices on 13 April because of their violent and intimidating nature.
Investigates the origin of the shooting that killed Jorge Tortoza and the circumstances in which four other photographers were hurt, so that those responsible can be prosecuted.
Investigates why the privately-owned stations failed to broadcast news on 13 and 14 April about the pro-Chávez demonstrations. RSF considers this failure to be a serious violation of the public’s right to be informed.
Investigate whether conditions for the free exercise of journalism have genuinely returned.
I am confident you will give this letter your careful attention and would be grateful if you could let us know how your visit to Venezuela goes.
My very best wishes,