Press Freedom Continues to Deteriorate

Hugo Pérez Hernaíz and David Smilde

The directors of three of the most influential independent national media outlets in Venezuela are under legal prohibition to leave the country. Teodoro Petkoff, director of the daily (now weekly due to economic and legal pressures) Tal Cual, Alberto Ravell, director of the web portal La Patilla, and Miguel Henrique Otero, director of the daily El Nacional, were sued back in January this year by the president of the National Assembly and vice-president of the ruling PSUV party, Diosdado Cabello, for re-printing a news item from the Spanish paper ABC claiming that Cabello is the leader of a drug cartel.

Petkoff, Ravell, Otero, and another 19 more managers of the three news outlets, face fines of up to 300 thousand bolivars (between $1,000 and $45,000 depending on the exchange rate) if found guilty, but Cabello also asked the tribunal to issue the travel restrictions. He declared in his show on public television: “Owners of El Nacional, Tal Cual, and La Patilla, you will have to assume your responsibility for the information published in your newspapers. If you have a single piece of evidence against Diosdado Cabello, go ahead and publish it, but let me be clear that I will always defend myself against defamations. I’ll see you in court.”

Miguel Henrique Otero has declared that he never accused Cabello of belonging to a drug cartel but merely informed of the claims made by ABC. He also says that Cabello has been granted by El Nacional the “right of response” in its own pages, as stipulated by Venezuelan law, but he has never done so. The adjunct director of the newspaper, the historian Elias Pino Iturrieta, commented that “if there was any doubt before about the climate of oppression in the country, now there is more than enough evidence.”

Alberto Ravel also declared that his outlet merely reprinted an international news item and that therefore he was not responsible for verifying the sources. He claims that the demand is part of a personal vendetta by Cabello against the directors and has asked the Ombudsman to act on his behalf. Ravell is currently in Miami but says he will soon return to Venezuela to face the charges. He also warned that La Patilla “will not change its editorial line” despite government pressures.

In early May, Petkoff was unable to receive the prestigious Ortega y Gasset journalism award in Madrid because of his legal situation in Venezuela. Via video he declared in the awards ceremony: “In today’s Venezuela the regime has confiscated the democratic rights of the nation. I cannot leave the country. The country is my prison.”

The independent media watchdog NGO Espacio Público published a press release condemning what it calls “the measures against directors of media outlets,” and stating such measures violate the rights of freedom of expression. Espacio Público argues that the court which issued the measures against the three directors goes against the principle established by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights which states that “reproducing information published by third parties is not a punishable offense.”

Apart from direct legal pressure, as in the cases of Tal Cual, El Nacional, and La Patilla, independent news outlets have also been facing indirect economic pressure due to the inaccessibility of newsprint. The problem is a consequence of the currency controls stablished by the government which limit the capacity of the newspapers to import it. Marco Ruiz, secretary general of the main journalists union the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa (SNTP), argues however that dollars for importing newsprint are granted selectively by the government and that therefore the practice amounts to a form “indirect censorship.”    

Recently, several important regional newspapers such as El Carabobeño, El Siglo de Aragua, El Correo del Caroní, and El Impulso de Barquisimeto have announced that they are running out of printing paper. El Carabobeño has announced its possible closure from April 13, El Correo del Caroní reduced its print format form broadsheet to tabloid, El Siglo has reduced its number of printed pages from 32 to 20 and has announced it could face closure in late May, and El Impulso has also said it will soon reduce its print version to only eight pages.

Advocates suggest that while the Venezuelan government does not engage in direct government censorship it is using legal harassment and economic pressure to the same effect. Earlier this month Ruiz, warned that Venezuela’s legal framework for journalism places undue restrictions on media, journalists, and freedoms of press in general.

The Inter American Press Association, an advocacy group representing media outlets, also expressed concern for the state of freedoms of press in Venezuela. In a press release the IAPA condemned the judicial orders against Petkoff, Ravell and Otero. President of the IAPA, Gustavo Mohme declared that the measure “demonstrates once more how the Venezuelan judicial system is being used as an instrument of political power.”

Yesterday the US Department of State backed the IAPA concern: “We share the concern expressed by the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA). We have urged many times the Venezuelan government to improve the environment of respect for human beings and fundamental liberties, such as freedom of expression and peaceful association,” said a spokesman.