Caracas, Venezuela, July 21, 2006—Rejecting a report by the Inter-American Press Association that says there is little freedom of speech in Venezuela, Venezuelan government officials said the organization is biased because it represents media owners and not journalists.
The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) declared Wednesday that there has been a “sharp deterioration in press freedom” in Venezuela. In a three day visit, its delegation says it met representatives of the Venezuelan press, NGOs, and academics, but that they were refused meetings with any government official.
According to IAPA Press Freedom Committee Chairman Gonzalo Marroquín, there has been an increasingly restrictive legal structure in Venezuela which has meant journalists facing legal action are subject to harsher penalties if found guilty. “We have noticed a growing tendency to file libel suits against journalists, which appears to indicate an attempt to silence independent voices. This is made worse by the imposition of stiffer penalties for crimes committed through the press, as in the latest reform of the Penal Code, and by the judiciary’s lack of independence,” said Marroquín.
IAPA also says journalists face harassment and attacks when they wish to access government information.
The main example cited by IAPA is the newspaper Correo del Caroní, based in Ciudad Guayana in the state of Bolívar, where it is claimed journalists have been attacked and that the paper is put under constant pressure by officials. For example, in May of this year the state legislature applied to have the offices of the paper moved, claiming the space was a “green area.” This application was denied by the local mayoralty.
“Since the outset of the Chávez administration a clear tendency toward limiting information has been observed, the typical action of authoritarian regimes that always see the press as an enemy,” said Marroquín.
The Vice-minister of Communication Strategy at the Communication and Information Ministry, Amelia Bustillos, responded by saying there was nothing new in the report and that it was disrespectful and slanted. “I regret that the IAPA representatives, maybe because of their tight agenda, haven’t had time to read, see, or listen to the media in our country, since it is well known that freedom of expression exists and also that official information is distributed equally. They, instead of wasting time with political operators of Venezuelan newspaper businesses, should have examined objectively how our media relates to the country. That is the best evidence.”
Venezuela’s main newspapers, such as El Universal and El Nacional, and the 24-hour news channel Globovisión are vehemently anti-government.
IAPA says it is an independent body that campaigns for press freedom. It operates throughout Latin America and releases frequent reports on the nature of the press across the continent. Critics argue, however, that it is “an owners’ club,” interested more in protecting corporate freedom than journalistic freedom. Indeed, Diana Daniels, President of IAPA and head of this investigative mission is also Vice-president of The Washington Post Company, one of the largest newspaper businesses in the U.S.
Accoridng to Bustillos, “The IAPA, in its role as defender of communication businesses and not of its journalists and workers—because we don’t recognize it as anything but that—accomplished again in our country its role as agent of the opposition, encouraged by the usual actors, repeating lies that only seek to discredit the Chávez government.”
IAPA is governed by the Chapultepec Declaration signed in Mexico in 1994, which is composed of ten governing principles that signatories believe are essential for the freedom of the press. Diana Daniels says that Venezuela is not fully observing the principles.
However, Bustillos says the Venezuelan government hasn’t recognized the Chapultepec Declaration, so they aren’t obliged to comply with it.