Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard wrote to French President Nicolas Sarkozy today about tomorrow’s official visit to France by his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan leader is currently mediating with Colombia’s FARC guerrilla group, which has been holding a Colombian politician with joint French nationality, Ingrid Betancourt, hostage since February 2002.
“I obviously hope this meeting will reinforce the efforts to obtain Senator Betancourt’s release, but as secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, I must nonetheless point out that President Chávez’s initiative must not be allowed to eclipse his government’s serious abuses or his behaviour on the international stage,” the letter said.
“Rarely has a president posed so many obstacles to free expression in such a short space of time,” the letter continued. “President Chávez has used the abortive coup against him of April 2002 - which, it is true, some media supported - as grounds not only for silencing critical and dissident media but also for gradually eliminating all forms of checks and balances and democratic opposition, especially the press.”
A Reporters Without Borders delegation was in Venezuela when RCTV, the oldest and most popular of Venezuela’s television stations, was prevented from continuing terrestrial broadcasting on Chávez’s orders, against the wishes of many of his own supporters and in violation of Inter-American legal precedent.
This development was condemned by many foreign leaders, especially in Latin America. All they received in response were insults and allegations of a “plot against Venezuela.”
The Reporters Without Borders letter also pointed out the scale of “the influence by Venezuela’s president over the media, with seven TV stations, a score of radio stations, the sole telecommunications operator, CANTV, the main national daily, Ultimas Noticias, and around 60 local newspapers all under his control.”
Ménard continued: “A made-to-measure law allows him to requisition all the radio and TV stations and oblige them to broadcast his speeches without interruption and for as long as he likes. President Chávez has used this system of so-called ‘cadenas’ more than 1,500 times since 1999, for a total of more than 900 broadcast hours, to which can be added the roughly 1,000 hours of his Sunday programme, Aló President, during the same period, for which the record for an individual programme was set on 5 August with a monologue lasting 7 hours and 43 minutes.
“The rare criticism of the government comes from a few newspapers and Globovisión, a TV station that does not reach the entire country. Targeted redtape procedures could soon force this station to close. Finally, a reform of the constitution which President Chávez had adopted at the start of his first term - a very controversial reform that will submitted to a referendum on 2 December - will give him the power to decree an unlimited state of emergency and, if he wants, to suspend press freedom.”
In all of these matters, Reporters Without Borders’ offers of dialogue “met with the grotesque and baseless claim that our organisation was working for US intelligence and was trying to organise a new coup,” Ménard wrote.
“At the same time that the press has been prevented from fulfilling the role it should play in a democracy, civil society and its components (professional organisations, trade unions and NGOs) have been brought into line,” the letter continued, pointing out that a draft law on international aid that was approved on first reading in June 2006 aims to limit “foreign influence”over local NGOs through their funding and they way they operate.
“Some Venezuelan NGOs that defend human rights have told us they are under heavy pressure from the government,” Ménard wrote. “The names of around 30 people said to be opposition supporters, including our Venezuelan correspondent, are on a blacklist released by a pro-Chávez lawyer, Eva Golinger, on 25 May.”
The letter ended by voicing the hope that Sarkozy would have a chance to raise these subjects with his Venezuelan counterpart and to “remind him that every elected president must agree to listen to the international community’s voice.”