Judge Issues Injunction Against Venezuelan Media

In a decision which critics say violates freedom of the press, a court ruled that the media cannot print information about case files and the private life of a key witness in the assassination case of State Prosecutor Danilo Anderson.

Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2006Among criticisms of violation of press freedom, a Venezuelan court has prohibited the publication of the case files in the ongoing investigation of the masterminds of the 2004 murder of Venezuelan State Prosecutor Danilo Anderson and the printing of any personal information about the key witness in the case.

Danilo Anderson was murdered in 2004 while investigating the involvement of members of Venezuela’s business and political elite in the failed April 2002 coup that removed the Venezuelan president from power for two days and dissolved the National Assembly and the constitution. On November 18, a fatal car bomb went off in Mr. Anderson’s SUV about five minutes after he left a university graduate course in Los Chaguaramos, Caracas, according to Venezuela’s forensic police (CICPC). 

Last month, three men were convicted of carrying out the murder, while three others, accused of being the masterminds behind the crime, were released from jail for health reasons pending trial. A fourth suspect, opposition journalist Patricia Poleo, is currently in hiding, and was recently seen in Peru.

Tuesday, Sixth Circuit Judge Florencio Silano, the same judge who released the alleged planners of the attack, ruled to limit the press in their coverage of the investigation and of the key prosecution witness. The move was in response to a request by the Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez late last week, “to prohibit all the media [television, radio, written, etc.] from publishing or broadcasting the case file records, because they have been used, irregularly, to advance a campaign aimed at demeaning the finding of the murderers of public prosecutor Danilo Baltazar Anderson, as well as to undermine the inquiry into alleged masterminds.” 

The ruling, which  Rodríguez said on the state TV station VTV was justified under Article 304 of the Penal Procedure law (Código Orgánico Procesal Penal),  immediately prohibits, “any type of publication, disclosure, or broadcasting of the case files, related to the terrorist attack on the State Prosecutor Danilo Baltasar Anderson, as well as making reference to the private life of witness [Giovanny Vásquez de Armas].”

Venezuelan private media, often vitriolically opposed to the government, has long questioned the credibility of Vásquez de Armas, the prosecution’s key witness. In addition to reporting a history of convictions for fraud, opposition television station Globovision published documents allegedly proving that he had been in jail at the time of the meetings in which he claims the four alleged masterminds of the attack were present. A source from the Attorney General’s office, who asked not to be named since he did not have authorization to speak to the media, said that they were still investigating the document, and could neither confirm nor deny its authenticity.

In relation to the injunction on reporting on the private life of Vásquez de Armas, the ruling said, “it is the duty of the state to protect his dignity as a human being, his honor, decorum, private life and judicial integrity.”

According to Steve Rendall, a Senior Analyst at the New York-based media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), “Information that may weigh on a defendant’s guilt or innocence is not private information, it’s public information and ought to be reported on.” Reacting to the injunction, he said, “When you have a system where the government is able to stop the media from publishing public information, you have something less than a free press."

Rodríguez, in a statement about his request to the court, had called into question the quality of the media’s reporting on the issue. He said that the media had taken bits of the case files out of context, and tried to discredit witnesses in order to “cast doubt on the performance of the judicial agents that are involved in the investigation and the trial.”

In his ruling, Silano said, “freedom of expression does not allow for the uncontrolled disclosure of humiliating statements against a person, or an illegitimate intrusion into the private lives of others, even less so the spreading of ideas, prejudices, and facts which are not verified, documents which appear to be legal, unauthorized recordings and films…which, combined, constitute an apology for terrorism.”

Before the ruling, according to government-owned news source Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, Rodríguez said that television stations had tried to discredit witnesses, especially Vásquez de Armas, and that has served as an act of intimidation, harassment, and psychological pressure which has caused the witness to have no choice but to not testify, change his testimony, and even leave the country.

Other government bodies are also supporting the decision. The president of the National Assembly, Nicolas Maduro, told El Nacional that during a private meeting yesterday of the Parliament’s coordinating committee, they decided to grant Rodriguez a vote of confidence in light of the court’s ruling.

One of the new members of the National Assembly, who was elected on the pro-Chavez slate, journalism professor Earle Herrera, criticized the injunction, saying, “If a journalist has access to [the files], it is his duty to make them public. This cannot be prohibited." referring to the investigators, he said, "it is those who have the duty to protect the secret of these files to make sure that this does not happen."

Similarly, the former President of the State TV channel VTV, Vladimir Villegas also expressed his concerns about the injunction, saying that it could lead to censorship. He added, that the country’s Supreme Court will have to review the decision.

Yesterday, members of the new opposition grouping, "National Resistance Commando," asked the Supreme Court to reverse the injunction, saying that it violates the constitution’s prohibition against censorship.

Many in the Venezuelan opposition have held that the murder of Anderson was not carried out by those convicted for the crime, but rather, was related to an extortion ring in which Anderson was involved. In January of 2005, newspapers reported that at a press conference, Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chácon, admitted to the possibility of such a ring, saying “I don’t think that Anderson knew what was being done in his name.” Recently, however, Rodríguez has denied that such a ring existed. When presented with Chacón’s statement from last year, a source at the Attorney General’s office said that in the course of the investigation it was determined that no such extortion network existed.

In addition to the gag orders, the government is investigating ten media outlets, a large part of the country’s press, for “obstruction of justice” because of their coverage of the Anderson case. The six television stations being investigated include Globovision, partially owned by Nelson Mezerhane, one of the alleged masterminds in the Anderson murder, and VTV, the state owned station. According to ABN, the National Commission of Telecommunications (Conatel) will investigate the stations under the Social Responsibility Law in Radio and Television. It is not immediately clear who will investigate the four newspapers targeted by the inquiry.

The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, enacted in 2003, placed restrictions on broadcast content, mostly against graphic violence and sexuality with the stated purpose was to protect children. Proponents of the law saw it as setting up FCC style regulations in Venezuela. Critics of the law say it is too vague, and potentially censors news reports.