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Offensive Newspaper Back on Newstands; Freedom of Expression Reigns in Venezuela

Venezuela is a victim of media warfare, executed in large part by private media outlets who years ago decided to become the loudest voice for the country’s political opposition.

A Caracas tribunal revoked the suspension last Monday of the publication Sexto Poder (Sixth Power), a newspaper temporarily shut down by Venezuelan authorities for printing slanderous and offensive material against women members of the national government.

On August 20, the weekly tabloid published an article entitled “The Revolution’s Powerful Women” where it depicted high ranking female public officials, including the President of the Supreme Court, Luisa Morales, as cabaret dancers in a show orchestrated by Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez.

The article immediately provoked the anger of women’s rights groups who held an impromptu demonstration against the newspaper in the capital on August 21. The nation’s highest legislative body, the National Assembly also demanded an investigation of Sexto Poder for violations of Venezuela’s Law on Social Responsibility in the Media which prohibits the publication of hateful,
slanderous, discriminatory and false information.

The tabloid was prohibited from operating during the investigation and its Director, Dinorah Giron, was detained for two days on charges of defamation, instigating hatred, and committing a public offense related to gender. Giron was released on August 23 while the paper’s President, Leocenis Garcia, has also been sought by investigators. Garcia fled the investigation for “fear of political persecution” and only recently agreed to turn himself over to authorities in light of the court’s decision to lift the ban on the publication.

Freedom of Speech

Although members of the paperadmitted that the article “crossed the line” the tribunal’s recent decision to allow the paper to continue its operations contradicts widely disseminated notions that the Chavez administration has been clamping down on freedom of expression.

Such notions, propagated by local and international NGOs aligned with the Venezuelan opposition, ignore the fact that the nation’s private media was the key player in encouraging an atmosphere of hatred that helped create the conditions for a violent coup d’etat in 2002 that cost the lives of at least 19 people.

In addition to provoking a destabilizing environment, opposition newspapers and television stations also played a crucial role in distorting information about the events unfolding during the coup itself, including intentionally manipulating video imagery to incite subversion against the government.

When residents of the shantytowns surrounding the capital of Caracas descended upon the presidential palace of Miraflores to bring back the kidnapped Chavez during the attempted overthrow, it was the private media that employed a blackout around the country, preventing the effective dissemination of information with respect to the coup’s imminent failure.

Yet, organizations such Venezuela’s National Press Club (Colegio Nacional de Periodistas) continue to unabashedly assert that the private media represents “one of the pillars of modern democracy”, while the Interamerican Press Society, with its history of supporting right-wing dictatorships throughout Latin America, rushes to defend opposition media outlets in what has been a coordinated attack against the government of Hugo Chavez.

But when government run media outlets such as Vive TV come under attack by opposition forces as has happened recently in the states of Zulia and Lara, the international and domestic defenders of freedom of speech are all silent.

Judicial Independence

The recent revocation of the court order against Sexto Poder also demonstrates that the Venezuelan judiciary is not controlled by the Executive branch. Despite a statement released by the paper’s workers which criticizes “the submission of judicial power and other powers to one man – Hugo Chavez”, the suspension of the tabloid was made at the behest of Judge Denisse Bocanegra based on an investigation solicited by women’s rights activists and the National Assembly.

President Hugo Chavez played no prominent role in the demonstrations nor the National Assembly’s proceedings. In fact it was Congresswoman Maria Leon and other activists who took a leadership role in the rejection of the demeaning depiction of female professionals in a country marked by a high degree of machismo.

“In just 12 years in Venezuela, for the first time we’ve been able to achieve, through the constitution, the equality of man and woman…The opposition represents the maintenance of everything that has been traditionally oppressed”, Leon said while calling women to protest against the tabloid’s caricature.

And it was the same Judge Denisse Bocanegra of the ninth circuit in Caracas who signed the lifting of the temporary suspension on the condition that Sexto Poder ceases to publish material that “constitutes an offense or insult against the reputation, decorum of any representative of the Public Powers with the objective of exposing them to disdain or public hatred”.

The tribunal has also prohibited the publication of material “degrading to women” and ordered the paper to remove all copies of the edition that contains the article in question from the public domain. When asked if Sexto Poder will change its editorial stance as a result of the judge’s ruling, the paper’s lawyer Pedro Aranguren affirmed the very existence of the freedom that exists in Venezuela, asserting that the tabloid’s writers will continue “talking freely in the streets, as is their slogan, informing people without gagging their readers in any way and without any fear”.

As of Tuesday this week, the paper named Patricia Poleo, a Venezuelan fugitive from justice wanted in connection with a homicide against federal prosecutor Danilo Anderson in 2004, as its director. Poleo has stated she’ll run Sexto Poder from exile.