Archive for March 29th, 2007

Censorship, corruption and freedom of the press

March 29, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, Ultimas Noticias, not precisely considered as an opposition newspaper, in part because of the openly pro-Chavez stance of its Director Eleazar Diaz Rangel, published a series of investigative reporting articles on the corruption and irregularities in the Venezuelan/Iranian partnership to process milk and corn in Venezuela. According to the reports, under the byline of reporter Luz Mely Reyes, the losses due to irregularities, mismanagement and corruption could reach as much as US$ 100 million.

Rather than call for an investigation or ask those responsible what was happening, the wrath of the autocrat was immediately let loose on his Alo President program on the same day as part two of the article, with Chavez accusing Diaz Rangel of treason, serving “obscure” interests as well as being a puppet of the owners of the paper. According to Chávez, this was simply part of a conspiracy in which obviously “imperialism” was part of it and blamed it all on the fact that since the partner in the project was Iran, it was that country and its Government that were the target of the investigate reporting and that newspaper.

Attacks like this from the autocrat are quite common; he has threatened the media over and over in the last few years, both print and broadcast media. What was initially “new” about this case, was that it was aimed at a newspaper which is not only considered to be very friendly to the Government, but one which has been shown in studies to be the beneficiary of official advertising, in what is clearly a discriminatory policy by the Chavez administration and a subtle form of interfering with freedom of the press. Such attacks show not only the intolerance of the Government, but its inability to accept criticism. Rather than investigate the case, the reaction is to attack and blame it all on a conspiracy, as blatant corruption has become the rule, rather than the exception.

But if this were not enough, Minister for the Popular Economy, Pedro Morejon, wrote a letter to the Editor of Ultimas Noticias, threatening to take the reporters, the Editor and the paper to Court, accusing them both in civil Court and penal Court. The Minister threatens the reporter for defamation, of which he suggests the Editor participated for not stopping the articles, but then he also threatens to sue the reporters, the Editor and the paper itself, for participating in an international conspiracy against the Venezuelan Government.

 More remarkably, neither in Chavez’s speech or Morejon’s letter, there is even the slightest suggestion that the case or “guiso” (stew in Spanish, commonly used to refer to corruption cases) would be investigated.

Diaz Rangel, ever the apologist for the autocracy and its supreme leader, considers the case to be “grave” as it represents the first time a high Government official sends a written threat like that of the Minister for the Popular Economy, considering it the biggest threat ever to a medium, as if Tal Cual and Laureano Marquez had not been fined for the case of Chávez’ daughter or there wasn’t a very explicit threat, repeated today, to shut down TV station RCTV on May 27th. without the law being followed or giving the latter a chance to defend itself.

What is most worrisome of this case is that it shows how thinly skinned the Government has become, that it has begun frontally attacking even his staunchest supporters in the media, while refusing to go and even try to find out whether the accusations are true or not. A newspaper like Ultimas Noticias has a high dependence on Government advertising that could disappear overnight if it does not behave, which we have seen in the case of TV stations Televen and Venevision, both of which have abandoned their criticism of the Government, refuse to show anything controversial such as protests and have shutdown most opinion programs. Both of these stations have now been rewarded for their good behavior with lots of Government advertising.

Besides the basic rights of freedom of speech that are being violated, there is of course the problem that the public’s right to know is simply being undermined. On days when dozens of protests occur across the nation, very little is actually reported in the print or broadcast media. Blatant corruption cases are not even mentioned or discussed, as was the case of the structured notes and Argentinean bonds sold by the Ministry of Finance to a select group of “friendly” institutions and crime figures seemed to have disappeared from the press.

But there are still some out there who still claim this is a democracy, there is absolute freedom of the press and corruption is not a bigger problem than it ever was in the past.

Yeah, sure…

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Here is today’s translation of Teodoro Petkoff’s article in today’s Ta Cual, which complements rather well my post above and which I was going to publish tonight anyway, showing that the concerns are quite similar and in synch with the Editor of Tal Cual.

It was now Ultimas Noticias’ turn by Teodoro Petkoff in Tal Cual

Ultimas Noticias, its Director Eleazar Dias Rangel and reporter Luz Mely Reyes have been threatened with a suit by the Minister for the Popular Economy, Pedro Morejo. The reason? The publication of a documented series of investigative reports about a supposed IranianVenezuelan swindle, a really stinky case, much like many others, whereby millions were made to disappear into the pockets of some of the members of the bolibourgeois and its accomplices in the Government.

The threat of a suit is the logical consequence of the scolding that a week before, I the Supreme, gave Diaz Rangel, who he accused of being a puppet of the popular daily, serving as usual “obscure” interests, and as always, linked to “imperialism”. Morejon simply copied the line. The response by the Editor of Ultimas Noticias, in both cases, was appropriate, but in the second one, he allowed a phrase to leak into it, that not even him can believe: “The conduct of Minister Morejon can not be considered to be Government policy”, having stated before it that “for the first time, a reporter receives on the part of this Government a letter like that one from a high level bureaucrat. Nobody else has ever been threatened like now”

Diaz Rangel is not right. The conduct of Minister Morejon is not an isolated one and it is indeed part of the policies of this Government. It is true that it is the “first time” that a reporter has been threatened in this way, but it was also the “first time” that a daily and an opinion writer, in the case of Tal Cual and Laureano Marquez, were fined with the not so small amount of Bs. 105 million, it was also the “first time” that the announcement was made of the cancellation of the concession for a broadcast TV station, it was the “first time” that a reporter was tried like Gustavo Azocar in San Cristobal, it was the “first time” that reporter Jose Clemente Ocanto was tried in Barquisimeto, one “first time” that the microwave equipment of TV station Globovision were confiscated (and not returned yet!); for the “first time” that trials have begun, which are still pending, against a number of communicators.

Thus, it is certainly the policy of this Government to progressively reduce the space for the exercise of freedom pf speech, using a perverse and very sophisticated set of procedures the objective of which is to create, using fear, a climate of self-censorship in the media, its owners, its workers and its opinion writers.

In each of
these cases the message is the same: see yourself in the mirror of your neighbor. If a daily like Ultimas Noticias, whose Director is a well known Chavista, can be threatened with a suit, accusing it of “being part of a national and international conspiracy”, as stated in the insolent and not very imaginative rhetoric of authoritarian regimes, what can one expect for the other media, reporters or opinion writers from a Government that each day makes more ostensible its disposition to silence criticism and dissident positions?

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