A U.S.-based press freedom watchdog is in Venezuela to investigate complaints that President Hugo Chavez is using news laws and the courts to silence journalists critical of his leftist government.
Several Venezuelan journalists are under investigation for charges from libel to murder, cases critics say were trumped up to intimidate independent media.
“The legal cases that have been brought against journalists are another attempt to weaken the media,” said Gonzalo Marroquin, head of the press freedoms commission of the Inter American Press Association, a Miami-based group that has long accused Chavez of trying to stifle press freedoms.
The government insists there is complete freedom of expression in Venezuela, pointing to newspapers and television stations that are harshly critical of Chavez’s policies. Information Minister Willian Lara said government officials were too busy to meet with the IAPA delegation.
Among other cases, the delegation, including IAPA president Diana Daniels of The Washington Post Co., is looking into murder accusations against Patricia Poleo, who is well-known in Venezuela for her anti-government editorials.
Poleo fled to Miami last year when she was accused of involvement in the 2004 car-bombing death of prosecutor Danilo Anderson, who was investigating an April 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez. She has yet to be formally charged, but a warrant has been issued for her arrest and the attorney general has said he will seek her extradition.
“The accusations against me are unfounded and the prosecutor still hasn’t presented proof that I committed a crime,” Poleo said in a telephone interview from Miami. “It’s part of the regime’s political persecution.”
Other recent cases include slander charges against TV commentator Napoleon Bravo, who criticized Venezuela’s Supreme Court and suggested it be replaced by a brothel. Government opponents accuse Chavez of stacking the court with his allies.
On Tuesday, the IAPA delegation visited the Correo del Caroni, a newspaper in southeastern Bolivar state. The pro-Chavez local legislature decided last month that the newspaper’s offices should be demolished because of problems with its construction, a plan Marroquin called “unthinkable.”
Press freedom advocates have expressed concerns about reforms last year that stiffened prison sentences for libel and slander. They have also criticized a new Law for Responsibility in Radio and Television, which bans vulgar language, sex and violence during daytime broadcasts.
The government says the new laws are aimed at raising media standards, not restricting free speech. Chavez accuses Venezuela’s private media of being aligned with his political opponents and supporting past attempts to oust him.
Leaders of the pro-Chavez group Journalists For Truth met with the IAPA delegation on Monday and denied there was a crackdown on journalists.
“These so-called journalists are really political activists and they have been justifiably accused of crimes, some of which aren’t even related to journalism,” said Luis Roberto Mendoza, a member of the group.