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VENEZUELA
Chávez vs. the press
IPS, Latinamerica Press
2/7/2002
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The president’s criticism of a press report is followed by a violent protest outside the newspaper’s office.

National and international organizations voiced concern about freedom of expression in Venezuela after supporters of President Hugo Chávez staged a violent protest outside the offices of the daily El Nacional on Jan. 7.

For more than an hour, members of the governing Fifth Republic Movement and other Chávez supporters blocked the entrances to the offices of El Nacional, one of the country’s most influential newspapers. The protest came one day after Chávez had attacked the paper during his radio program.

"Tell the truth or we’ll burn the office down," demonstrators shouted. Miguel Henrique Otero, director of the daily, said they insulted employees, threw stones and threatened to abduct people leaving the office. Police finally used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

El Nacional

had published a report on Jan. 5 about an anti-Chávez protest that had occurred when the president visited Catia, a low-income Caracas neighborhood, to present funds to owners of small businesses and transportation collectives.

"From the time he arrived until the time he left, from buildings and houses could be heard the sounds of banging pots and pans, which the chief executive ignored," the report said. The banging of pots and pans, known as a cacerolazo, is a common form of protest.

On Jan. 6, in his radio program, Aló Presidente, Chávez denied the El Nacional report, calling the daily "the paper of lies and indignity."

Chávez has repeatedly attacked the opposition press in his radio addresses. He also has threatened media owners, whom he accuses of being "counterrevolutionaries," hinting that they could be sued for tax or inheritance problems.

"President Chávez’s comments ... about communications media, which are made from his position of authority as chief executive, could have an intimidating effect on the press and society," Santiago Cantón wrote in a report in 2000, when he was the Inter-American Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression. Cantón, who is now secretary of the commission, plans to visit Venezuela in February to evaluate press freedom there.

Gregorio Salazar, secretary of the National Union of Press Workers, said journalists have warned of possible violence against the media. "The president’s constant verbal attacks are eroding the climate of respect for freedom of expression," he said.

The Catholic Church also criticized the attack on the El Nacional offices. Bishop William Delgado, president of the media commission of the Venezuelan Conference of Bishops, said such incidents "are an attack on freedom of expression."

Robert J. Cox, president of the Inter-American Press Association, called the protest "an act of intimidation, not the kind of democratic protest to which all citizens are entitled."

During an official ceremony on Jan. 10, Chávez said the protest outside the El Nacional offices had been "peaceful" and called on Venezuelans to "overthrow the dictatorship of the communications media." He added, "This media campaign is a threat to the revolution, so we need to confront it and defeat it."

Three days later, a 30-vehicle caravan of Chávez supporters drove by the offices of two other daily newspapers, El Universal and La Nación, as well as the RCTV television station. Participants shouted slogans including "Tell the truth" and "No more lies."


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