San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chepe Court Judges Venezuelan Press Freedom

A San José-based court is examining whether Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has violated press freedom by failing to prevent and fully investigate attacks against opposition journalists.

Two very different visions emerged at a public hearing earlier this month at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where lawyers for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) presented a case against Venezuela.

RCTV lawyers said Venezuelan officials and Chávez’s followers, incited by his speeches, verbally or physically attacked 20 reporters and photographers between 2001 and 2004.

Germán Saltrón, head counsel for Venezuela, said “there’s no proof” state officials were involved, and the government cannot be held responsible for aggression by non-state actors.

Of the 29 complaints brought by RCTV, government lawyers said they closed or put on hold 17 cases because the Prosecutor’s Office found that no crime had been committed or the aggressor’s identity was unclear.

Just one suspect has been detained and is awaiting trial.

Judges from Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Jamaica, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic will study the case and are expected to issue an opinion in November, said court spokesman Arturo Monge.

The case marks a key battle in Chávez’s ongoing clash with opposition journalists and politicians.

Globovision, another opposition TV station, has also brought a case before the

Inter-American Court

, arguing that the government failed to prevent and fully investigate aggression against 44 staff members.

The reporters’ claims find support in a 2007 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group that promotes global press freedom.

“From 2000 to 2004, coinciding with peaks of political conflict, scores of Venezuelan journalists were attacked, harassed or threatened, for the most part by government loyalists and state security forces,” the report reads.

Chávez and other government officials encourage hostility toward opposition journalists by calling them “coup-mongerers,” “fascists,” “manipulators,” “oligarchs,” “assassins,” and “little Yankees,” said Rodolfo Ponce, a spokesman for Venezuela’s Press and Society Institute.

Still, the report’s authors cautioned, “The violent animosity has not been one-sided: Opposition sympathizers have attacked or harassed reporters and photographers working for state media.”

Two photographers testified at the court hearing. Carlos Colmenares said a police officer shot at him with a BB gun during a protest in 2003, but he could not identify the gunman. During another protest the following year, he was shot in the leg with a firearm.

Antonio Monroy said he was shot in the leg while covering a protest in 2002. A suspect, Simón Golcheid, was charged in his shooting last week, some six years later, said Alejandro Castillo, a lawyer for the state.

The press, like other sectors of Venezuelan society, appears to have become increasingly polarized since Chávez took office in 1998. RCTV and Globovision are the only remaining television channels closely associated with the opposition, said Ponce.

Last year, the government refused to renew RCTV’s license to use the public airwaves, effectively reducing its reach from 99 percent of the population to about 22 percent, Ponce said.

Meanwhile, Chávez has built a “formidable state communications apparatus,” said Carlos Lauría, senior coordinator for the Americas program at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But Lauría stressed that freedom of expression still exists.

For Chávez, the criticism has gone too far. At the public hearing, Saltrón depicted RCTV as a subversive political actor that promoted an unsuccessful military coup against Chávez in 2002 and continues to undermine him.

At the end of his cross-examination, cameraman Monroy requested to make a final statement.

“This trial isn’t about RCTV,” he said. “It’s about the physical integrity of Antonio José Monroy, and the integrity of all my companions at Radio Caracas Television.”


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