Press Freedom Threatened in Venezuela, Group Says

Times Staff Writer

Blaming a "deliberate, strategic" campaign of harassment by the Venezuelan government against the nation's news media, the Inter-American Press Assn. said Wednesday that the climate of press freedom and free speech has "deteriorated sharply" in recent years.

The statement came after a delegation headed by IAPA President Diana Daniels of the Washington Post visited the offices of the Correo del Caroni, a newspaper in Ciudad Guayana. Two months ago, the state assembly passed a resolution asking the city's mayor to demolish the paper's building and revoke its business license. Neither step has yet been taken.

Correo del Caroni editor Robinson Lizano said by telephone that the resolution was an act of intimidation and that the newspaper had gotten on the bad side of Gov. Francisco Rangel Gomez of Bolivar state with articles criticizing corruption and faulty public services. Rangel is a former army officer and close friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In a telephone interview, IAPA delegation member Gonzalo Marroquin of the Prensa Libre newspaper in Guatemala City said a pattern of abuse of Venezuela's media has emerged since Chavez took office in 1999. This was the eighth visit by an IAPA delegation since then to investigate allegations of infringement of press freedoms.

"This is one more example of the harassment suffered by the independent press in Venezuela, that is far from the rule of law," Marroquin said about the Correo del Caroni. The owner of the newspaper is David Natera Febres, past president of the Venezuelan Press Assn., a group of the nation's 40 largest newspapers.

David Medina, spokesman for Rangel, alleged in an interview that the newspaper illegally acquired the building it occupies more than two decades ago and is violating zoning requirements by operating a printing press there.

"The regional assembly did not issue a demolition order, just a resolution. So the IAPA complaint is based on false facts," Medina said. The issue of whether the building will be demolished is now up to the city council, he said.

Last year, prominent Venezuelan radio reporter Patricia Poleo, who was a frequent critic of Chavez's policies, was among seven suspects named to face charges in connection with a car bombing in November 2004 that killed federal investigator Danilo Anderson. She was among the first to write about the presence of Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos in Venezuela in 2001.

Human rights and media advocates said the warrant for Poleo was designed to intimidate opposition news media.

The IAPA statement Wednesday was the latest of several warning that free speech is at risk in Venezuela. The group has cited 10 instances of abuse, including a report last year that labeled as intimidation a government investigation targeting El Universal newspaper of Caracas for criticizing Chavez.

The National Assembly, which is dominated by Chavez allies, passed the Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law in 2004, increasing government regulation of broadcast content.

Television and newspaper owners now face reviews of their licenses, said Adolfo Herrera, dean of the journalism school at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

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