By: James Anderson, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Venezuela’s news media say fear of attacks by President Hugo Chavez’s armed supporters stopped them from covering the protests that led to his dramatic return.
Much of the media were roundly criticized for meticulously reporting the events leading to the coup that ousted Chavez last week — then underreporting or ignoring the popular rebellion that restored him on Sunday.
Some commentators admitted an anti-Chavez bias in the media. But media managers, accustomed to years of harassment by Chavez supporters, also said coverage was weak because they did not believe the pro-Chavez demonstrations were safe for reporters. One photographer had already been shot in the face and killed during protests earlier in the week.
On Wednesday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed a string of attacks on media between Chavez’s ouster early Friday and his return to power on Sunday.
Supporters smashed the windows of Radio Caracas Television with stones and surrounded Globovision and Venevision, the group said. Radio Caracas Television evacuated most of its workers, as did the El Nacional and El Universal newspapers. They and most other newspapers did not publish on Sunday for fear of attacks.
“We remain deeply concerned for the safety of Venezuelan journalists,” Ann Cooper, the executive director of the CPJ, said in a written statement.
Chavez’s leftist government, despite new appeals for reconciliation, announced two investigations into the media’s conduct during last week’s events.
Jesse Chacon, president of Venezuela’s telecommunications agency, is heading one of them. Chacon had previously drafted media regulations that were condemned by the Inter-American Press Association as an attack on press freedoms.
Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, demanded Wednesday that Chavez find a way “to guarantee that journalists can work without fear, without intimidation.”
While many media in recent months had appeared to openly side with Chavez’s opposition, some insisted Chavez had placed them in an untenable position.
They said Chavez had repeatedly abused a law to interrupt regular programming, using it to vent personal attacks against individual reporters and news media owners. He took over the airwaves last Monday and Tuesday, broadcasting dozens of messages urging Venezuelans not to join a general strike against his government.
On Tuesday, newspapers joined the general strike that eventually led to Chavez’s overthrow. During Thursday’s protests, Chavez apparently retaliated by shutting down television stations and keeping live coverage of the bloody opposition demonstrations off the air.
During the melee, Jorge Tortoza, a 45-year-old photographer for Caracas’ Diario 2001 newspaper, was shot in the face and killed.
The president’s supporters, known as “Chavistas,” have been accused of repeatedly harassing Venezuelan reporters.
A bomb damaged the offices of Asi Es La Noticia newspaper earlier this year. Two prominent reporters received multiple death threats. Chavistas blockaded El Nacional newspaper about the same time, threatening journalists. At least one publisher in eastern Venezuela reported that Chavistas were threatening to burn newsstands that sold his paper.
After Chavez’s reinstatement, several journalists went into hiding or left the country, saying they feared for their lives.
Antagonism between Venzuelan media and the government had been building for some time.
With the disintegration of Venezuela’s traditional political parties in the 1990s, a vacuum developed, and the media found themselves the only ones checking government conduct and reporting abuses, said Eleazar Diaz Rangel, editor of the newspaper Ultimas Noticias.
But some media also hosted meetings of anti-Chavez forces in recent months. Diaz Rangel said the editorial policies of some news outlets “were very corrupt, and with a very heavy anti-government position.”
Globovision television director Alberto Ravell apologized to viewers for failing to broadcast Saturday’s pro-Chavez protests. But he, along with other media managers, said it wasn’t safe for reporters.
In a conciliatory news conference on Monday, Chavez urged his supporters to let journalists do their jobs — “It’s all over, and anyway they aren’t to blame for anything,” he said — with the caveat that “they should be conscious of the responsibility they have to their family, to their conscience, to ethics.”