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Venezuela's Press Openly Pressures Chavez to Leave Office - 2002-10-21

Venezuela's media, including privately-owned newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels, have openly joined the growing campaign to pressure populist President Hugo Chavez to leave office. For his part, Mr. Chavez continues his attacks on the press, aggravating the situation even further.

In a nationwide broadcast last week, President Chavez took the privately owned media to task for underplaying a large pro-government march on October 13. With occasional sarcasm, he listed the time each television station spent covering the demonstration and compared it to the coverage of a massive anti-Chavez march just three days earlier.

"Five hours of coverage of the opposition march," the president said citing one station, "and just 17 minutes devoted to our march on Sunday. This treatment is not impartial and also denies television viewers valuable information."

This tendency also was evident in the print media. One of Venezuela's major newspapers, El Universal, did not include the pro-Chavez demonstration on its front page, and devoted only one page on the inside to the event. By contrast, the newspaper carried seven pages on the October 10 opposition march and related developments, including ample front-page play.

Lawmaker Desire Santos Amaral, who is a member of Mr. Chavez' party, describes this kind of coverage as flagrantly biased. Ms. Santos, a former journalist, says the media have joined the opposition.

"Journalism in Venezuela, and most of all the media owners are taking on the role of political opposition parties in this country," she said. "The result of this, is that journalistic ethics are ignored and the media now openly manipulate information to agitate and scare the population."

But the media blame President Chavez, saying he has been hostile to the press since he took office in 1999. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press watchdog group in New York, says Mr. Chavez's criticism has inspired press intimidation and harassment by his supporters. Sauro Gonzalez is a researcher at the Committee's Latin American program.

"Especially during the last two years, the president has often in his radio and TV programs, or his frequent speeches, referred to journalists by name and also to media owners in very aggressive ways," he said. "His criticisms have been acid, and sometimes his supporters have listened to this criticism and have decided to act on it." Mr. Chavez's supporters have attacked newspaper offices and television stations in the past.

When Mr. Chavez was briefly deposed by elements of the military in mid-April, following bloodshed during an anti-Chavez march, Venezuela's media openly cheered the coup. Two days later, as Mr. Chavez was being swept back into power by loyalist forces, much of the media did not report on the turn of events.

At one point, angry Chavez supporters surrounded a television station demanding it broadcast a message calling for the Venezuelan leader to be restored while terrified journalists inside broadcast appeals for help.

Editor Elides Rojas, of the Universal newspaper, says this intimidation and what many journalists believe is Mr. Chavez's autocratic tendencies have forced most Venezuelan reporters to take sides against the government. As a result, he tells VOA, the principles of impartiality and objectivity have been dispensed with.

"It's war, not in conventional terms but in terms of having to put aside objectivity, balance, and comprehensiveness in our news coverage, in return for someday recovering these principles in a normal society," he said. "I don't see anything immoral in this…it is honest since we are proclaiming this openly."

But the Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned, saying, if Venezuelan journalists become advocates, they risk retaliation. While no journalist has been arrested, nor has any media outlet been shut down by the government, the Committee's Sauro Gonzalez says press freedom in Venezuela is endangered. "Although there are no imprisoned journalists that's not the only criteria by which we measure freedom of expression in any country," he said. "So, although, CPJ is glad there is no imprisoned journalist in Venezuela it takes more than that. It takes a president to not take such an aggressive tone against journalists and also it takes media owners to allow journalists to do their jobs in a balanced manner, and for both to follow the Venezuelan constitution."

It is hard to find middle ground in a country where an estimated 70 percent of the population wants President Chavez to step down, while the remaining 30 percent are equally adamant that the Venezuelan leader serve out his six year term.