Caracas this fall, fails to publicly support Venezuelan
journalist who fears he'll be jailed if he returns home sp.
JOURNALIST CARLOS BALL has been affiliated with the Inter American Press Association for more than a decade and would like to go to the group's upcoming meeting in Caracas.
After all, he's a native Venezuelan who has worked at several newspapers in the South American country, and he has many colleagues there he'd like to see again.
But it's unlikely Ball will return to his home, considering that President Rafael Caldera called him a "criminal" and "traitor" on national television and that an aide to the leader said in print Ball was a "liar" and "mercenary" who employed tactics reminiscent of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Ball believes he would be placing himself at tremendous risk if he were to participate in this year's IAPA conference.
"Treason in Venezuela is 30 years," he explained, "and I am 55 years old."
Miami-based IAPA, whose mission is to defend the freedom of the press and of journalists throughout the Western Hemisphere, has been curiously silent about Ball's predicament. This, even though just this month the association called on Guatemalan leaders to investigate attacks against an American newsman who was ordered out of the country, and criticized the government of Cuba for harassing journalists there. (See sidebar.)
Meanwhile, Caldera has been asked to deliver the keynote address at IAPA's October gathering in Venezuela's capital city.
Now living in Florida and running his own Spanish-language news service, Agencia Interamericana de Prensa Econ?mica, Ball is the most visible, and vilified, expatriate Venezuelan journalist to have aimed a critical eye at the Caldera government. His columns appear in 14 countries, in more than 30 newspapers from New York to Santiago.
In the United States, he's featured most prominently in the Wall Street Journal, to which he's contributed since 1987.
Ball reported in the Journal that under Caldera, Venezuela had suspended constitutional liberties and property rights, established price and currency controls and virtually instituted a nationalized banking system.
"Venezuela," he once wrote, "has become, overnight, the second socialist republic in the Caribbean."
The government has carried out especially brutal measures against the press.
Caldera last December signed what Ball described as "the worst press law in the hemisphere," providing for the imprisonment of newspeople who aren't licensed with the Colegio, a sort of national press union. Andr?s Mata, publisher of Venezuela's largest newspaper, El Universal, said the law had "a Soviet flavor."
Furthermore, strict exchange policies give bureaucrats the power to determine how much newsprint newspapers can import, and when they can import it.
"By controlling the economy," Ball observed, "they control newspapers completely."
At least one Venezuelan daily has closed since sanctions were imposed. El Diario de Caracas, which Ball once edited, folded three weeks ago. The new press law, higher taxes and steep newsprint prices proved "a lethal combination," according to Ball.
It's clear about whom Caldera is speaking when, according to an account in El Universal, he rails against "those who go to the U.S., that write columns in the most important economic dailies in the world, pointing to Venezuela as a country where one cannot live, a country without a future, a country moving toward failure."
Jos? Castellanos, a press spokesman in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions regarding Caldera's publicized remarks about Ball.
"I can be a journalist, or I can be a public relations person for the government of Venezuela. I have to tell the truth," Ball said in an interview.
"It's not a personal thing between me and Caldera," he added. "It's about things he doesn't want people to know about Venezuela."
Ball's situation has received a smattering of attention in both the U.S. and foreign press. He's been profiled in the Washington Times and the Spanish-language magazine Pulso del Periodismo, published by the Latin American Journalism Program at Florida International University. El Mercurio of Santiago, Chile, has come out in his behalf. And in an editorial last week, the Miami Herald charged Caldera with "incoherent leadership" and accused the president of "defaming" those who dare criticize him.
While encouraged by the support he's found in friends and various publications, Ball is anything but pleased about IAPA's treatment.
"They haven't made any public statement, and that's shameful," he said. "IAPA hasn't come out and said, Look, this isn't acceptable behavior on the part of Caldera."
If President Clinton had labeled any newsperson "traitor," every press group ? including IAPA ? would have "raised hell," Ball maintains.
The journalist is particularly disappointed that IAPA plans to feature Caldera on its convention program, commenting, "If this guy is a sworn enemy of press freedom, he should not be invited to attend."
IAPA spokesman Ricardo Trotti said leaders of his group were aware of Ball's uneasy relationship with Venezuelan powers but hadn't any plans to officially support the beleaguered journalist.
"All of the information we have on Carlos Ball is in our Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information," he related. "I don't know the status of the analysis of that information. We don't know what steps will be taken by IAPA."
Trotti supposed an IAPA representative might ask Caldera about his views on Ball during the Caracas meeting.
Incoming IAPA president and Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence couldn't be reached to discuss the Ball matter, as the executive was traveling this week.
While it has stopped short of rallying behind Ball, IAPA has expressed disapproval of mandatory licensing of newspeople.
Such a restriction "violates the accepted norms for freedom of expression as guaranteed by international law," IAPA president Raul Kraiselburd, publisher of El Da in La Plata, Argentina, said in a statement issued the first day of the Summit of the Americas, held last December in Miami.
"Gathering and distributing information," he added, "is the right of each and every human being, not just of the most educated or influential."
Danilo Arbilla, who heads IAPA's press freedom committee and publishes the weekly magazine Busqueda of Montevideo, Uruguay, has said the international press group had nothing against journalists' organizations. "What we strongly oppose," he stated, "is the requirement of union membership or an academic degree in order to practice journalism."
Attempts to reach Kraiselburd and Arbilla also were unsuccessful.
John Sweeney, a friend of Ball who was a journalist in Venezuela for more than 15 years and who now works at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., where Ball once was a fellow, understands why IAPA, as well as the Venezuelan media, might have some trepidation about defending Ball.
"The government controls access to the essentials of the print and broadcast media," he said. "The government can make it very difficult for you if it wants to."
Some might be ambivalent about Ball's situation because he resides outside Venezuela, Sweeney noted, commenting, "Carlos is isolated from the worst things the government might do to him, personally and economically."
Pulso del Periodismo, in an article headed "How To Betray Your Country," contends that Ball's isolation makes him an authentic threat in the eyes of Caldera and his deputies.
Ball is "one of the few Venezuelans," the magazine said, "who can write and diffuse his conviction that what is good for the country is less of [the existing] system and more democracy."
Sweeney, who twice was jailed in Venezuela for his work and vows he won't go back, cannot say enough positive words about Ball and his journalism. He feels his colleague ? a "warmhearted and intelligent man who has an accurate vision of what's wrong" in his homeland ? has been "unfairly and viciously" attacked.
"I celebrate his criticism and share it 100%," Sweeney said. "I think he's providing a great service."
David Asman, features editor at the Journal, agrees that Ball's coverage of Venezuela has been on target, pointing out that Ball was the first to report on the problems of Banco Latino. Its collapse in January 1994 marked the biggest bank failure in Latin American history.
"He's got the number of the Venezuelan government pretty well," Asman said, calling Ball's writings "the most insightful columns on Venezuela I've ever seen."
Asman, who himself has reported extensively from Latin America, said Venezuela might not appear a violent place at first view. But unrest always seems to be "bubbling under the surface," he added, recalling the two military coups under deposed President Carlos Andres Perez.
"You have this veneer of peacefulness, and then this veneer of pluralism," the editor said. "It's a very complex country that has yet to resolve some fundamental issues about democratic rights ? and freedom of the press is certainly one of them."
Caldera clearly can't stand to be criticized, "and understandably so," says Asman. "But you don't deal with your critics by calling them 'traitors.' "
?(Now living in Florida and running his own Spanish-language news service, Carlos Ball is the most visible, and vilified, expatriate Venezuelan journalists to have aimed a critical eye at the Caldera government) [Photo & Caption]
By: Tony Case Inter American Press Association, which will meet in