Venezuela a top concern at press freedom forum
By IAN JAMES-Associated Press Writer
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Press freedom groups condemn Venezuela's recent shutdown of radio stations as part of a broader strategy by President Hugo Chavez to progressively clamp down on the private news media - and they want to put a stop to it.
Newspaper executives who lead the Miami-based Inter American Press Association say Venezuela will be at the top of their list as they gather in Caracas for an emergency forum Friday to discuss freedom of expression in the Americas.
The government has announced plans to take 29 more radio stations off the airwaves.
Globovision - the last opposition-aligned TV channel on the open airwaves - is also the target of multiple investigations that authorities say could lead to the revocation of its broadcast license. Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation earlier this month to determine whether Globovision was trying to incite rebellion by airing a viewer's text message that allegedly called for a coup.
The station has been the only opposition outlet on regular non-pay TV since 2007, when Chavez refused to renew the license of another opposition-aligned channel, RCTV.
"Our single largest preoccupation, I think, at IAPA is the move by President Chavez in Venezuela, also followed very closely by President (Rafael) Correa in Ecuador, to slowly but steadily transform a free and independent media into independent media under constant attack and harassment," said Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News and president of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.
"I do believe that if President Chavez thought he could get away with it, he would simply shut down the media," Rivard told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Everybody, including the owners of Globovision, think it's not if - but when - President Chavez tries to shut them down. We'd like to get in the way of that."
Chavez denies his government is trying to eliminate critical voices in the media.
The one-day forum in Caracas is being supported by other press groups including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Attendees will consider threats to freedom of expression throughout the hemisphere, with speakers including former presidents Carlos Mesa of Bolivia and Alejandro Toledo of Peru.
Chavez has been feuding with the IAPA for years, saying it represents the interests of media owners who are hostile to his government.
Instead of debating with the visiting critics, the government announced plans for a separate, parallel forum in Caracas involving journalists from various countries. The Information Ministry said in a statement that the IAPA news executives were coming "to support the private media, focused on strong opposition to the government."
Venezuela still has many fiercely anti-Chavez radio stations and newspapers. Critics accuse the government of trying to winnow their numbers and of using bogus legal cases to pressure some that are perceived as threats.
Reporters have also been targets of violence. Twelve journalists were kicked, punched and beaten with sticks last month by a group of purported Chavez supporters. The journalists had been passing out leaflets opposing the new education law, specifically a provision that would allow sanctions against news media reports that "produce terror" among children or incite hate. One suspect was detained after the attack and was later released while the investigation proceeds.
Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, said the government's approach to the media is intended to "produce fear" among journalists to encourage self-censorship. The government yanked its advertising several years ago from Otero's paper, which continues to take a strongly critical stance and regularly publishes political cartoons depicting Chavez as a toad in military regalia.
"This is a country that's moving rapidly toward a totalitarian regime," Otero said. "Every day the democratic world should go about taking more of a stance."
© 2009 Copyright Associated Press
Chavez's government forced 32 radio stations and two small television stations off the air last month, saying some owners had failed to renew their broadcast licenses while other licenses were no longer valid because they had been granted long ago to owners who are now dead.