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Over the past year, there has been a continuous string of assaults on journalists and press property in Venezuela. Human Rights Watch estimates that there were at least 130 assaults and threats of physical harm to journalists and press property between the beginning of 2002 and February 2003. This estimate is based in part on a list of cases compiled by independent Venezuelan media analyst Sergio Dahbar from press reports, eyewitness testimony, and video recordings.6 In addition to physical assaults, the total includes injuries sustained in demonstrations and incidents involving threats of physical violence. In its annual report covering the period from October 2001 through September 2002, the respected nongovernmental human rights group PROVEA recorded a comparable number of incidents: 106 cases of physical attack on journalists or press property or threats against members of the press.7

The extent of popular animosity toward the media was particularly evident in early December 2002. On the night of December 6, 2002, three protesters were killed and more than twenty injured when a civilian gunman opened fire on a peaceful opposition crowd gathered in the Plaza Altamira in Caracas. Some private television networks linked the alleged killer with a well-known pro-Chávez mayor, thereby attempting to implicate the Chávez government in the killings. The print media picked up the story on the following day. In his regular Sunday broadcast on December 8, President Chávez accused the stations of concocting evidence to discredit his government.

On December 9, pro-Chávez protesters surrounded private television outlets in the cities of Maracay, Barquisimeto, San Cristóbal, and Maracaibo. A mob ransacked Globovisión's Zulia studios, destroying cameras, monitors, computers, recording equipment, and office furniture. Similar damage was done to the studios of TRT and Televen in Táchira, TVS in Maracay, and Promar in Barquisimeto. Menacing Chávez supporters, banging pots and blowing whistles, surrounded the Caracas headquarters of Globovision, RCTV, Televen, and Venevisión. Secretary General of the Organization of American States Cesar Gaviria, who had been in Venezuela for months brokering political negotiations between the government and the opposition, immediately condemned the attacks.

Even before the events of December 9, pro-Chávez mobs had surrounded newspaper and television stations on several occasions, blowing whistles, taunting journalists, spraying graffiti on walls, smashing windows, and burning vehicles.

Journalists are not attacked for simply doing journalism, rather they are attacked for being foot-soldiers in the media war supposedly being waged by their bosses against President Chávez. The same is true of reporters for state media and community radio and television stations, who are seen as pro-Chávez political activists first, reporters second. Respect for journalists as purveyors of accurate information to the public has been one of the first casualties of the current political polarization.

The Question of Government Responsibility

Venezuelan and international press freedom organizations have repeatedly expressed concern at the aggressive tone of President Chávez's speeches, which they say has contributed to violence against the press. Human Rights Watch has viewed hours of video of Chávez's weekly television program, "Hello President," and presidential speeches in which he has severely criticized the press, though we have not been able to see or read all that Chávez has said on the topic. In the material that we have viewed, his comments include personal attacks on prominent media owners and personalities, as well as harsh, controversial, and often aggressive commentary on the partisanship of the media in today's Venezuela. But his statements cannot, from a legal standpoint, be considered an incitement to violence.

Chávez has a right to respond to his critics, even using vulgar and aggressive language. What he must never do is encourage his supporters to physically attack, intimidate, or harass journalists, or imply that such behavior is acceptable and would be tolerated. Given the current polarized atmosphere in Venezuela, to make matters absolutely clear to his supporters, he should accompany any critical comments about the media with a vigorous condemnation of physical aggression against them.

The insecurity and risks faced by journalists are exacerbated by the fact that press workers cannot necessarily rely on the police to protect them from assault. Increasingly, the Caracas police forces have themselves taken sides in the political conflict. Journalists from the private media can expect some protection from Caracas's Metropolitan Police, who are under the control of the pro-opposition mayor of Greater Caracas, Alfredo Peña. But the police responsible to the pro-Chávez mayor of Libertador, Freddy Bernal, as well as the militarized National Guard, are often said to look the other way when journalists working for opposition media are harassed and attacked.

On February 5, 2003, for example, twenty young males wearing Chávez tee-shirts and wielding clubs surrounded Charmiant Corado, a reporter for the television network Televen, while she was interviewing an opposition congresswoman at the Yagua gasoline distribution plant in Carabobo. The men refused her access to the plant; insulted her, her cameraman, and assistant; and threatened to kill them if they didn't leave immediately. When Corado pointed to some National Guard soldiers standing a few feet away, the men told her that they, not the guardsmen, gave the orders, and the guardsmen did nothing to protect her. The thugs later drove up to where Corado was parked (she was in her car telephoning her station), stole her video tapes, hit her driver on the face and neck, and threw a stone through the back window of her car.8

A day earlier, on February 4, a Chavista crowd beat Angel Véliz, a photographer for the local Anzoategui newspaper Impacto, who was covering a clash between striking oil workers and strike opponents in Anaco. Véliz's attackers snatched his camera and punched and kicked him in the presence of national guardsmen. He had reportedly identified himself and turned to the guardsmen for help, but they gave him no assistance. Véliz was cut and bruised on various parts of his body and had to have stitches in his right arm.9

Not only are members of the press often denied effective police protection, those who suffer physical attacks, or have their working tools damaged or stolen, rarely obtain redress from the Venezuelan criminal justice system. There is virtually no chance of a successful investigation of relatively minor incidents, such as the punches, kicks, and acts of intimidation that journalists face as part of their everyday work, especially when these incidents take place in crowded streets. So far, courts have failed to punish any of those responsible for the scores of attacks which victims have reported to the police and the public prosecutors. Immediately after the attack she suffered at the Yagua gasoline distribution plant, for example, Charmiant Corado filed a complaint with the Carabobo state police and the public prosecutor. A month later, she had not been contacted either by the police or the prosecutor's office. Nor, she said, had the police carried out inquiries at the Yagua site, even though the youths who attacked her had been camped there and would presumably not have been difficult to locate.10 Cumulatively, the failure to investigate cases like Corado's contributes to an atmosphere of lawlessness that inhibits journalism and ultimately affects the public's right to be informed.

The opposition press accuses the government of organizing anti-media protests. It also alleges that members of the Bolivarian Circles, neighborhood groups set up with government support, are responsible for many of the attacks on journalists. In Caracas, opposition suspicions center on a former organizer of the Circles, the pro-Chávez mayor of Libertador, Freddy Bernal.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Bernal said that he had lectured government supporters about the importance of not attacking journalists, noting that they were not to blame for press distortions. Bernal admitted that the municipality had transported Chavistas to demonstrate outside the headquarters of Venevisión on February 5, 2003, when officials arrived to notify the station about the Ministry of Infrastructure investigation. "When the other stations were notified, the media got their people together to beat pans when the attorneys arrived and broke the windows of their cars. So we went to give the officials some support," he told Human Rights Watch. According to the press, of four hundred demonstrators who turned up at the Venevisión headquarters, more than half arrived in a bus and three trucks provided by the municipality.11 There were no reports of violence or vandalism during this demonstration in contrast to similar ones that occurred in previous months.

While some incidents against the press may be spontaneous, others do seem to have been orchestrated. The clearest example was the violence of December 9, 2002, when attacks against media outlets occurred simultaneously across the country.

Bernal told Human Rights Watch that the Chavistas who congregate day and night outside the mayoral offices in the central Plaza Bolívar (a spot now known as the "Hot Corner" (esquina caliente)) are mostly unemployed people in search of money and work. "They are not on our payroll, in fact they threatened to occupy the town hall if I didn't give them work. The methods they use to defend the Revolution do us harm. I put one of them in jail for burning a vehicle of Globovisión. The next day a hundred of them turned up at the town hall on motorbikes to protest because I had betrayed the Revolution."12

Attacks on Public and Community Broadcasters

Journalists working for publicly-owned media (in particular VTV-Channel 8 television and Radio Nacional) have also suffered physical attacks and harassment, in their case by opposition activists. Journalists identified as working for these media, which are seen to be aligned with the government, are often badmouthed and sometimes physically attacked. Young reporters and camera operators working for alternative community radio and television have also been victims of such attacks.

These incidents, apparently fewer in number than attacks on employees of private companies, also get much less publicity. But they too are intimidating. "When you are in an opposition march, they follow you, they film you and try to hear what you are saying into the mike," a Radio Nacional reporter told Human Rights Watch. "If you ask them questions they insult you. Once a guy threw a hot cup of coffee over me: that'll teach you to tell the truth, he said."13 Independent documentary filmmaker Liliane Blaser told Human Rights Watch that she had been harassed on several occasions because of her work challenging the opposition version of the April 2002 coup attempt.14

On the morning of February 2, 2003, Narka Moreno, a reporter for Catia TVe, a community radio station in Caracas, was in the Parque Oeste district as signatures for a referendum were being collected by opposition activists. When she began to interview bystanders a man hustled her away: "Get out ! Out! Catia TVe's no good," the man shouted. She left the scene. Later, from a vantage point across the road she heard an explosion and saw a flame shoot up inside the tent where the signing tables were. A group of people ran directly toward her and a man grabbed her by the hair, pulled her to the ground and started kicking her in the ribs. "You must know who threw it," he cried. He grabbed her video camera.

"I think it's an ideological question," Moreno said later. "It's clear that in Venezuela the private media distort reality. The community media like us have come to represent the other side. I think they knew that I had recorded things they didn't want the public to know. That's why they beat me and stole my camera."15

Many opposition leaders portray grassroots media like Catia TVe as ultra-left political outlets, and deem their workers to be among President Chávez's most radical supporters.16 Since January 2002, every organized community in Venezuela has had the right to obtain a license for a local broadcasting service. The Venezuelan Broadcasting Guild (Cámara Venezolana de la Industria de la Radiodifusión, CVIR), the leading professional association for radio journalists, has opposed the new community stations. It complains that CONATEL, the government body charged with enforcing broadcasting regulations, has not taken action to enforce licensing laws.17 The regulations prohibit community services from engaging in political advocacy.18 Yet a major grievance of the CVIR, as well as of the political opposition (with which the CVIR is closely allied), is what they perceive to be the radical political profile of the stations. Indeed, in press articles and editorials the community stations are frequently portrayed as ideological mouthpieces of the state. This perception probably lay behind the raids conducted against community radio and television stations on April 12, 2002, after Chávez had been temporarily deposed in the coup.

6 Sergio Dahbar, "Agresiones a Periodistas en Venezuela," unpublished document, Caracas, February 2003 (copy on file at Human Rights Watch).

7 Situación de los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela 2001/2002, available at: (retrieved on April 30, 2003).

8 Human Rights Watch interview with Charmiant Corado, Carabobo correspondent of Televen, February 8, 2003; Nair Castillo, "Turba de Chavistas arremeten contra equipo de Televen," Así es la Noticia, February 6, 2003.

9 Evarista Marín, "Chavistas apalearon a fotógrafo en Anaco," El Nacional, February 5, 2003.

10 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Charmiant Corado, March 4, 2003.

11 "Minfra puso el oficio, Bernal los autobuses," Tal Cual, February 6, 2003.

12 Human Rights Watch interview with the mayor of Libertador, Freddy Bernal, Caracas, February 12, 2003.

13 Human Rights Watch interview with Radio Nacional journalist Thais Gómez, Caracas, February 10, 2002.

14 Testimony of Liliane Blaser, in a meeting of community television and radio workers attended by Human Rights Watch, Caracas, February 6, 2003.

15 Video testimony produced by the National Association of Free and Alternative Media (Asociación Nacional de Medios Comunitarios, Libres y Alternativos), 2003.

16 A hostile article about community television published in El Nacional included a debate about Catia TV by three academic media experts, all of them scathing critics of the station. "Cuatro horas frente a la pantalla de Catia TV," El Nacional, September 22, 2002. The opposition press has accused community radio stations of whipping up support for anti-media protests. El Nacional reported that the violent demonstration outside Globovisión's Zulia station on December 10 was advertised beforehand by a community radio station, 94.1 Bolivariana FM. "Círculos Chavistas atacaron medios en todo el país," El Nacional, December, 11, 2002.

17 "Un tomista de la UNCV inicia su pasantía en la radio comunitaria," El Nacional, September 22, 2002.

18 "Como montar un radio o una televisora comunitaria," Asociacón de Medios Comunitarios, Libres y Alternativos, (retrieved on March 11, 2003).

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