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Venezuela: Constitutional reform seen as "dangerous watershed" for press freedom

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the threats to press freedom from two articles in a reform of the 1999 constitution which the national assembly approved on 26 October and which Venezuelans are being asked to endorse in a referendum on 2 December. The organisation also fears for the safety of journalists in a media war waged during the referendum campaign and fed by clashes between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chávez.

“What need did President Chávez have to risk exacerbating the divisions and polarisation in the population by amending a constitution which he himself got the country to adopt in 1999?” Reporters Without Borders asked. “The 1999 constitution was drafted with help from civil society and ended up attracting a degree of consensus. The reform is inopportune and has been condemned by leading figures and political parties which until now had supported the government. In particular, articles 337 and 338 dangerously violate the spirit of the preamble and threaten press freedom.”

The organisation added: “The climate in which the referendum campaign has taken place and the appalling attacks on the press from both sides could at any moment be used as grounds for decreeing an unlimited state of emergency under article 338 and thereby suspending such basic constitutional guarantees as right to information under article 337. Approval of this reform could therefore represent a dangerous watershed for press freedom.”

Both the pro-government and opposition media have taken a heavy toll in the course of repeated clashes triggered by the debate over the constitutional reform. The violence escalated after the 2 December referendum was formally convened.

Television reporters Francia Sánchez of RCTV Internacional and Diana Carolina Ruiz of Globovisión were physically attacked as the police looked on without intervening during a student demonstration outside parliament in Caracas on 15 October. Paulina Moreno of state-owned TV Avila was injured by an explosive device in Caracas on 25 October, while her crew was sprayed with insecticide by reform opponents.

Parliamentarian Iris Varela, who advocates a state takeover of Globovisión, stormed into the studios of Televisión Regional del Táchira (TRT) in the western city of San Cristóbal on 20 November while Gustavo Azócar was hosting his programme “Café con Azócar,” claimed she had been offended by Azócar, refused his offer of right of response on the next day’s programme and smashed equipment.

Varela said she would not sue Azócar “in order not to turn him into a martyr,” but she called on his employers to dismiss him “under pain of having the station’s broadcast licence immediately revoked” and she called on her fellow parliamentarians to support her. Varela’s behaviour was condemned by Periodistas por la Verdad (Journalists for Truth), a pro-government group of journalists.

Public opinion is very polarised about the constitutional reform and this is naturally reflected within the already deeply divided media. The University of Göteborg (in Sweden) and the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) of Caracas monitored coverage of the campaign by the main radio and TV stations from 5 to 25 November, the weeks immediately following the announcement convening the referendum.

“The behaviour of the broadcast media was, on the whole, very imbalanced,” the survey said. “The most extreme cases were RCTV Internacional [a privately-owned TV station], supporting a ‘No’ vote, and YVKE Mundial [a public radio station], supporting a ‘Yes’ vote. During the first week surveyed, RCTV Internacional had 101 references to the referendum of which only one favoured a ‘Yes’ vote. YVKE Mundial, on the other hand, referred to the subject 119 times, giving positive consideration to a ‘No’ vote only twice.”

State-owned Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), Tves and Radio Nacional de Venezuela (RNV) “have a marked tendency to favour a ‘Yes” vote,” the report said, while Globovisión and Radio Caracas Radio (RCR) “have a marked tendency to favour a ‘No” vote.” At the same time, the survey offered figures showing that some media were relatively balanced in their coverage: Canal I (Yes 33 per cent, No 49 per cent, Neutral 18 per cent), Venevisión (Yes 38 per cent, No 48 per cent, Neutral 14 per cent), Televen (Yes 41 per cent, No 37 per cent, Neutral 22 per cent) and Unión Radio (Yes 39 per cent, No 36 per cent, Neutral 25 per cent) - (Three-week average established by Reporters Without Borders on the basis of the monitoring data).

Privately-owned Venevisión and Televen took a clearly anti-Chávez stance when he became president and, like RCTV and Globovisión, were regarded as having supported the 2002 coup attempt against him. Since then, Venevisión and Televen have taken an increasingly more pro-government line and Venevisión was able to get its terrestrial broadcast licence renewed when it expired on 27 May.

RCTV was unable to renew its own terrestrial broadcast licence, which expired at the same time, so it switched to cable and satellite broadcasting under the name of RCTV Internacional. Threatened with suspension again for “administrative” reasons, it is due to learn its fate after the referendum.

Globovisión, which is restricted to broadcasting in the capital and the surrounding region, has since 27 May been the only national terrestrial broadcast TV channel to take a critical position towards the government. Backed by Eleazar Díaz Rangel, director of the main national daily newspaper, Últimas Noticias, President Chávez controls most of the broadcast media, including a score of radio stations, the state-owned TV stations VTV (on which he hosts the Sunday programme “Aló Presidente”), Telesur, Vive TV, Asamblea Nacional and Tves (which took RCTV’s terrestrial frequency) as well as the national phone operator CANTV.

The president can at any time legally force all the broadcast media to provide simultaneous live retransmission of his speeches for as long as he likes under a system known as “cadenas.” Since the start of the year, he has also promoted and funded the launch of about 60 alternative and community newspapers.

The referendum being held on 2 December - despite calls for a postponement, in some cases from within the ruling coalition - is meant to ratify some 60 changes or additions to the constitution that President Chávez promulgated at the beginning of his first mandate in 1999. Articles 337 and 338 are among the most controversial provisions and have been criticised by such leading Chávez supporters as former defence minister Gen. Raúl Baduel and the centre-left party Podemos, whose representatives abstained when the national assembly voted on the reform.

In its original form in the 1999 constitution, article 338 said “the state of emergency can last 30 days, and can be renewed for the same period, or in cases of internal or external conflict, it can last as long as 90 days, and can be renewed for the same period.” The amended form drops any mention of a deadline for renewal and allows the president to proceed without referring to the supreme court, violating judicial precedent set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In its original form, article 337 said certain constitutional guarantees, including access to information, could not be suspended in a state of emergency decreed by the government. The amended version has dropped access to information from the list rights considered inviolable, even in a state of emergency.

National assembly deputy speaker Desiré Santos Amaral, herself a journalist, announced on 24 November that the law governing the work of journalists would be amended in 2008.

Date posted: November 28, 2007 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 10