In Venezuela, Gov't. Threatens AFP Over Closing News Bureau

By: Mark Fitzgerald After what it called two years of fruitless negotiations with its Venezuelan journalists, the French news agency Agence France-Presse closed its Caracas bureau in December, arranged final severance payments for its employees, and brought in correspondents from around Latin America to cover the tumultuous nation.

The move enraged not only AFP's unionized local employees but also the government of the notoriously anti-press Hugo Chavez.

On Dec. 29, the Ministry of Labor declared flatly that the wire service had no right to close the Caracas bureau, which first opened in 1961. The ministry threatened fines if the agency did not resume negotiations. Then, on Jan. 5, the Ministry of Communications and Information of the so-called "Bolivarian Republic" of Venezuela warned that it would not credential any foreign AFP journalists who "illegally substitute" for the agency's former Venezuelan employees.

Assigning foreign-based journalists to Venezuela, "would be an act in violation of Venezuela's labor laws," the minister, Andr?s Izarra Garc?a said in a statement released by the government's official news agency Venpres.

On Venpres, the so-called "France Press Affair" has taken its place among a number of crises the mercurial Chavez is juggling, including the most explosive, the "Granda Affair," in which he has accused the Colombian government of sending bounty hunters into Venezuela to kidnap a leader of the left-wing FARC guerrilla group.

AFP maintains the Venezuelan employees represented by the National Union of Press Workers have been unreasonable in their bargaining demands, and had begun to insist on working schedules that were not realistic for reporting work.

"No one can tolerate a reporter who refuses to cover a presidential speech, alleging that 'his workday concluded five minutes ago,'" AFP's regional directorate said in a Jan. 7 statement.

AFP also maintains that its non-Venezuelan journalists and their families in their home country "have been threatened and injured with anonymous calls at night that originate from Venezuela as a method to pressure and blackmail them into leaving the country."

Far from doing anything illegal, AFP says, it has followed Venezuela's labor laws scrupulously -- and it is the government that is acting "illegally" with its order that the Caracas bureau continue operating.

Throughout the dispute, according to Venezuelan news reports, the unionized AFP reporters have continued to file articles, but none have been used by the agency.



An occasional diary of the working conditions of Latin American journalists


Journalist Stephen Williams on Jan. 14 received a suspended sentence, three years probation, and was ordered to perform community service in a plea bargain settling charges he broke a secret publication ban in writing about the notorious case of serial killer Paul Bernardo.

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression said it were "dismayed" by the government's prosecution of Williams, who faced 97 criminal charges.

"This will leave him with a criminal record, which may mark the first time a Canadian writer has received a criminal record for his writing," the Toronto-based group said in a statement. "This outcome sends a chilling message to journalists and writers who express criticism of police and judicial actions in Ontario. It also sets a dangerous precedent for prosecution of journalists who acquire access to crown materials that the governments deems sensitive and upon which they may have enacted secret publication bans."


A radio journalist known for his tough reporting on local corruption was shot to death as he drove to work in the Colombia/Venezuela border city of Cucuta Jan. 11 by gunmen passing on a motorbike. Julio Hernando Palacios was shot twice, but managed to drive back to his home. His family took him to the hospital, where he died.

As host of a program called "The Wind" on Radio Lemas, Palacios denounced corruption and strongly supported President Alvaro Uribe in his military strategy against guerrilla groups. The Associated Press reported Palacios had survived an earlier assassination attempt in 1996, when a grenade was tossed into his office but failed to explode. He is the first Colombian journalist killed in 2005.


Independent journalist Raul Rivero is back writing for the Inter American Press Association, six weeks after his release from a Cuban prison while serving a 20-year sentence in the Castro government crackdown on dissident journalists, economists, librarians, and others.

In the article entitled "Illusions Found," Rivero writes about the beginnings of the independent news agencies in Cuba, their problems with police and government oppression, and the lack of professional training that hampers their quality.

As a prisoner last October, Rivero was re-elected IAPA's regional vice chairman for Cuba of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information. Miami-based IAPA posts the work of Rivero and other Cuban journalists on the web site, It also distributed this most recent article to its 1,300 member papers.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

"In the daily challenge of these problems, the independent Cuban agencies have always received the support of colleagues and friends. Each time someone is sent to jail, there are immediate protests from the media in our
hemisphere and Europe.

"The solidarity has always extended beyond the pages of the newspapers and radio and television broadcasts, and prestigious professionals and executives made efforts to find solutions with Heads of State and turned to international organizations.

"Travelers, passing reporters, individuals that are vigilant and willing have always left behind on makeshift tables copies of independent journalism, reams of paper, pens, small tape recorders, cameras, newspapers and magazines, books, and perhaps the most important, words of inspiration for those from a realm of shadows and poverty, working towards shedding light on the country where they live."


Ecuador's president, L?cio Gut?errez, approved the regulations necessary to implement the Freedom of Information law passed last spring by the legislature, IAPA reported Jan. 14. The Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information was first proposed by the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors and other local press organizations.


Two journalists who went to a Lima hospital to report on alleged medical negligence were assaulted by security guards Jan. 11, the Lima-based Institute for Press and Society reported.

Yoice Pacori of the daily newspaper Correo and Jos? D?az of America Television said they were first allowed into the hospital and then detained by security, who confiscated their IDs. When they left the security office, five guards appeared and tried to take D?az's camera. When he resisted, he was beaten by the guards. Pacori tried to photograph the incident, and she was assaulted by guards who seized her cell phone and threw her to the ground. The melee was stopped by police officers who were in the hospital to pick up the body of the woman who allegedly died because of negligence.


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