Venezuelan Court Retracts Ruling in Graphic Image Controversy

Yesterday a Venezuelan court partially retracted a ruling prohibiting printed media from publishing “violent, bloody or grotesque” images.

By Tamara Pearson - Venezuelanalysis.com

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“Only a media outlet without ethics, without morals, would publish this photo” (
“Only a media outlet without ethics, without morals, would publish this photo” (CiudadCCS)
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Mérida, August 20th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Yesterday a Venezuelan court partially retracted a ruling prohibiting printed media from publishing “violent, bloody or grotesque” images. It made the original ruling after the Ombudsman’s Office lodged a legal complaint that a photograph carried by two national newspapers of bodies in a Caracas morgue had a negative impact on children and adolescents.

The head of judicial services for the Ombudsman’s Office, Larry Devoe, announced yesterday that Court 12 for the Protection of Children and Adolescents in Caracas partially revoked its own ruling that it had made on Tuesday.

On Tuesday it had ruled for a general prohibition of violent images and also specifically ordered Venezuelan dailies, El Nacional and Tal Cual, to cease publishing such images with a protection order of a month.

However, after the partial retraction, the ruling still applies to Tal Cual, “for being the defendant in a protection case that the Ombudsman’s Office filed last Monday,” Devoe said.

On 13 August El Nacional published a photo of bodies piled up in the Bello Monte morgue on its front cover. It is unclear when the photo was originally taken, with some press reporting that it was taken on 26 December last year, and others that it was taken on the same day but in 2006. Morgue workers told press the photo was taken without authorisation and in violation of the privacy rights of the families of the deceased.

“All the human rights defence institutions questioned the publication [of the photo],” Devoe said, and the Ombudsman’s Office filed the restraining measure to prevent other press from using the image.

Despite that, “Tal Cual, disregarding all the public rejection, insisted on publishing the photograph again,” Devoe said. Tal Cual published the photo on Monday 16 on its first page.

The judge made the ruling on Tuesday, but yesterday decided there “weren’t sufficient elements in the action to assume that the rest of the press would do the same thing,” Devoe said.

The publication of the image caused a strong reaction from government supporters, and later from the opposition. Government supporters claimed the image, apart from being inappropriate for children, was an opposition strategy to manipulate the public, cause destabilisation, and win more votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

In turn, after the initial ruling was made, national opposition and international media that are critical of the Venezuelan government accused it of censorship and restricting media freedom.

Latin American mainstream media used headlines such as “Chavez wants to hide violence censuring media” – El herald, Honduras; “Controversy over censorship in Venezuela press” – La Nacion, Argentina; “Venezuela, without photos or news of violence” – El Colombiano; and “Chavez prohibits Venezuelan press from reporting violence” – La Nacion, Costa Rica.

Venezuelan opposition spokesperson Marcelino Bisbal said in El Universal, “I have no doubt that the government wants to censure the press” in relation to the court measure.

Further, on Wednesday El Nacional published blank spaces in its newspaper with the word “censored” in red.

The Venezuelan Ministry of Communications reported that the El Nacional editor Miguel Otero said on CNN that, “the editorial intention of the photo was to create a show for the people, so that they would react in some way in light of the situation where the government doesn’t do anything regarding national insecurity and personal insecurity.”

During the interview CNN did not show the image, stating that it found it too disturbing for its audience.

The organised opposition declared earlier this month that crime will be its main campaign angle for the National Assembly elections coming up in September.

President Hugo Chavez called the publication of the image a sign of the opposition’s “desperation... because they are trying to sabotage the Bolivarian Revolution by any means.”

Also, Devoe concluded that even with the measure mostly withdrawn, the Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents, published in 1998 before the Chavez government, “prohibits the diffusion of images inappropriate for the integral development of children and adolescents... if it is necessary to print such images... the print media should publish an indication or sign that the informs the public of the content.”

International and national opponents of the Chavez government have tried to portray it as repressing the freedom of press, often referring to when it did not renew the broadcast license of coup-supporting television channel RCTV in 2007, and more recently in March this year when Chavez criticised website Noticiero Digital for falsely reporting the assassination of a government official.