Reporters Without Borders today condemned both the confiscation by the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) of live broadcast equipment on 3 October from one of Venezuela’s leading TV stations, the 24-hour news channel Globovisión, and a grenade attack on Conatel headquarters a few hours later.
"These two events are extremely worrying and show the fragility of press freedom in Venezuela as it approaches an electoral period," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said.
In a letter to infrastructure minister Diosdado Cabello, who is responsible for Conatel, Ménard noted his claim that the equipment was not seized because of the content of Globovisión’s broadcasts. If this is the case, Ménard said, "then it is not the station’s content that should be punished."
Ménard added: "Without taking a position on the violations allegedly committed by Globovisión, our organisation can only condemn a decision which considerably limits a TV station’s ability to report the news."
The organisation also asked state prosecutor Isaias Rodríguez to keep it informed on progress in the investigation into the grenade attack on Conatel on the night of 3 October. "Reporters Without Borders has often condemned Conatel’s decisions as a danger to press freedom, but it cannot accept the use of violence to silence either news media or a state agency," it said.
The dishes and antennae removed by Conatel officials from Globovisión’s roof and from two hill-top sites above Caracas on 3 October allowed the TV station to carry live broadcasts from outside locations. Conatel director Alvis Lezama said the equipment was taken because of indications that Globovisión was using unauthorised frequencies.
Cabello, the infrastructure minister, said: "This is an administrative procedure. Globovisión is still able to function. We have not touched the programme content." President Hugo Chávez for his part said: "The permissive Chávez is over. We are and will continue to be vigilant as regards any excesses, especially by the news media, and we will apply the law whenever necessary."
Globovisión director Alberto Federico Ravell called it "an attack on freedom of expression" and said that, as the station could no longer cover what was happening on the streets, it was now operating at only half capacity. The seizure was a step towards sanctioning other TV stations critical of the president, he added. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has called for the measure to be suspended and for the equipment to be returned pending resolution of the complaint.
The grenade attack on Conatel headquarters during the night of 3 October caused damage but no injuries. Information minister Jesse Chacón, a former Conatel director, said: "It was two men on a white motorcycle who threw the grenade and then fled." Chacón said it was a response to Conatel’s confiscation of Globovisión’s equipment. Before the grenade attack, there had been a violent protest outside Conatel which police dispersed.
Globovisión and the other three most important commercial TV stations - RCTV, Televén and Venevisión - have been dubbed the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by President Chávez because of their criticism of his government.
In January and February, they and a regional channel, Televisión Regional de Táchira (TRT), were told they are the subject of an administrative investigation because of their coverage of the opposition general strike in December 2002 and January 2003. The infrastructure minister will have the final say, and depending on his decision, they could be fined, their programmes could be suspended, or their licences could be rescinded.
Meanwhile, from 31 October to 3 November, the opposition intends to try to collect more than 2 million signatures to a petition for a referendum to get President Chávez to stand down.