A showdown is looming this week between President Hugo Chavez and a major group of newspaper publishers that has long criticized his record on freedom of the press.
The meeting of the Inter American Press Association, the hemisphere’s largest association of newspapers, opens Friday in Caracas. Only blocks away, Chavez supporters are planning a forum on “media terrorism,” street demonstrations and a “popular tribunal” to “try” the press group on bias charges.
“It’s clear evidence of an autocratic government that doesn’t accept criticism,” said David Natera, publisher of the local Diario del Caroni newspaper and an outspoken Chavez critic. “This shows that the government is scared of the IAPA’s conclusions regarding the very real threats to freedom of expression in Venezuela.
Chavez and the IAPA have clashed for years, with the press group accusing Chavez of muzzling critical media outlets. The IAPA strongly criticized the socialist leader’s decision last year not to renew the broadcast license of anti-government Radio Caracas Television.
Chavez notes that hundreds of newspapers are published in Venezuela, including many that are very critical of his government. He frequently accuses the news media of trying to stir up violence to destabilize his government.
The IAPA’s executive director, Julio Munoz, denied the Miami-based association has unfairly singled Venezuela out, saying the group warns against perceived threats to press freedoms across the Americas regardless of political leanings.
“The IAPA is going to be present wherever it is needed and wherever there are problems with freedom of expression,” he told The Associated Press. ?But Venezuela is not the focus of this meeting. The entire hemisphere is the focus.
He said the IAPA invited Chavez and Information Minister Andres Izarra to attend the meeting, but hasn’t heard back.
“Of course, we hope they come. They are welcome, and we would really like to exchange points of view,” he said.
But it appeared Chavez was focusing on the rival forum, which he dubbed the Latin American Meeting Against Media Terrorism. He said journalists from 14 countries would be at his forum, which will focus on what he described as attempts by the news media to provoke violence and spin lies.
“It’s necessary to discuss this issue of media terrorism throughout the world: the use of newspapers and national, international television and radio stations to generate terror, to even try to make war,” Chavez said this week during a Cabinet meeting broadcast live on state television.
“People from all over the world are coming to Caracas to evaluate this phenomenon: journalists, analysts, intellectuals, writers,” he said. “It’s not right that this continue occurring in the world in such an open manner.”