‘El Nacional’ Under Siege In Caracas

By: Mark Fitzgerald

In his tumultuous three years in office, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made or invented many enemies: Business and union leaders, politicians and unnamed “oligarchs,” even, most recently, Roman Catholic bishops. Not surprisingly, Chavez also loathes almost every news organization that has managed to elude the control of his “Bolivarian Revolution.” But the one-time military-coup leader seems to save a special venom for El Nacional, the Caracas daily published by the Otero family’s Editora El Nacional S.A.

For a while, Chavez’s only weapon against the paper was his mercurial rhetoric. He refers to the newspaper by the belittling diminutive “El Nacionalillo” and calls it an “undignified daily full of lies.” Chavez frequently targets El Nacional‘s “blackmail” in his weekly broadcast, “Alo Presidente” (“Hello, President”). Like all Venezuelan papers, El Nacional labors under constant legal jeopardy because the new Chavez-drafted national constitution provides many justifications for censoring and punishing the press. But, until recently, the only real action his administration had taken against El Nacional specifically was to prohibit government officials and employees from subscribing to it.

All that changed Jan. 7 when a crowd of Chavez supporters (estimated to number from 150 to 400) mobbed the paper’s offices, throwing bricks, breaking a few windows — and trapping some 400 El Nacional employees inside the building. “The physical damage was not very much, but the atmosphere was terrifying for employees,” Luis Bonilla, the paper’s operations director, said in a telephone interview last week. “Everyone was very afraid.”

The siege lasted the better part of three hours before police, using tear gas, were able to break it up. Even then, people were afraid to leave the offices, Bonilla said. It quickly became apparent that this was no spontaneous gathering, but had been led by government agitators.

Free-press groups were outraged by the mob action. “The president’s verbal threats are now being acted upon,” said Robert Menard, secretary-general of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Robert J. Cox, assistant editor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and president of the Inter American Press Association, called it “an act of intimidation.” The Organization of America State’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights officially demanded the government “ensure the protection needed for El Nacional‘s employees.”

Physical force may be all that’s left for Chavez, who appears to be losing his
demagogic touch. The El Nacional edition the mob tried to stop reported a new poll showing the president’s once-mighty approval rating had slipped to 18%. When Chavez called his supporters out into the streets for a demonstration on Jan. 23, 100,000 responded — but at least that many people swarmed to an opposition rally.

Publisher Miguel Henrique Otero recently told Miami Herald columnist
Andres Oppenheimer that Chavez actually helps El Nacional: Since the president began his harangues, circulation, reported last year at 153,000, is up 30%. “Chavez,” Otero said, “has become our best marketing agent.”

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