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US Ambassador to Venezuela Comments on Press Freedom - 2002-01-09

The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Donna Hrinak, warned Tuesday that there could be no democracy without a free press in the country. Ambassador Hrinak's comments came during a visit to the newspaper El Nacional, which Monday night was besieged by pro-government demonstrators demanding a change in its critical stance towards the government of President Hugo Chavez.

Monday's demonstration by a large group of President Chavez's supporters marked a new phase in the hitherto largely verbal battle between the President and the El Nacional newspaper. It followed remarks by Mr. Chavez in his Sunday radio program in which he once again accused the paper of lying, this time over a pot-banging protest which accompanied a visit he made to a poor neighbourhood in the capital.

Ambassador Hrinak told reporters the U.S. was concerned that a legitimate political demonstration had crossed the line into intimidation. Her remarks came as Venezuelan newspaper editors declared themselves in a state of alert in defense of freedom of expression and said they would be taking the issue to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. They said the incident was typical of "totalitarian regimes of a fascist nature".

Leading members of Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party have denied organising the demonstration, which for a time prevented El Nacional's staff from entering or leaving the newspaper building. They insist it was a spontaneous popular protest. However, defense minister Jose Vicente Rangel, himself a journalist, repudiated the action, which he called "negative from every point of view".

The mob's leaders have threatened similar actions against other newspapers, as well as tv and radio stations, and police were deployed to protect some of them since Thursday.