Venezuela's minister of communication and information, Andres Izarra, recently accused The Post and several other American media of being part of a campaign to defame Venezuela directed by the Bush administration and funded by the State Department. Apparently I drew Izarra's attention by writing several columns and editorials lamenting President Hugo Chavez's assault on press freedom and the independent judiciary and his support for anti-democratic movements elsewhere in Latin America.
One of the journalists libeled by Izarra pointed out that he had no evidence to back up his accusations. According to the newspaper El Universal, that inspired the following outburst, in Spanish, from the cabinet minister: "Mister gringo, be sure that we are going to come back to defeat you . . . because we work with the truth, we have spirit and above all something very special, a leader who unites and inspires us, the commandante Chavez!"
It's easy to laugh at such buffoonery if, like me, you have the privilege of working for an independent newspaper in a capital where demagogues such as Izarra aren't taken seriously. In Caracas, however, the minister's rantings -- and those of his master, Chavez -- are no longer funny. Beginning this month journalists or other independent activists accused by the government of the sort of offenses alleged by Izarra can be jailed without due process and sentenced to up to 30 years.
To be sure, much of the Venezuelan media has aggressively opposed Chavez's populist "Bolivarian revolution," though not without reason: The former coup-plotting colonel is well on his way to destroying what was once the most stable and prosperous democracy in Latin America. Some newspapers and television stations openly sided with attempts to oust the president via coup, strike or a national referendum. Having survived all three, a strengthened Chavez is moving to eliminate critical journalists and create in Venezuela the kind of state-controlled media environment in which a minister of information such as Izarra is all-powerful.
The first step was a new media content law, adopted by the Chavez-controlled legislature last December, that subjects broadcast media to heavy fines or the loss of their licenses for disseminating information deemed "contrary to national security." Its impact was soon felt: Two of the most prominent anti-government journalists lost their jobs as anchors on morning television shows, and Venezuelans quickly noticed the appearance of self-censorship among those who remained.
Ten days ago Chavez handed Izarra a still-bigger stick: a new penal code that criminalizes virtually any expression to which the government objects -- not only in public but also in private.
Start with Article 147: "Anyone who offends with his words or in writing or in any other way disrespects the President of the Republic or whomever is fulfilling his duties will be punished with prison of 6 to 30 months if the offense is serious and half of that if it is light." That sanction, the code implies, applies to those who "disrespect" the president or his functionaries in private; "the term will be increased by a third if the offense is made publicly."
There's more: Article 444 says that comments that "expose another person to contempt or public hatred" can bring a prison sentence of one to three years; Article 297a says that someone who "causes public panic or anxiety" with inaccurate reports can receive five years. Prosecutors are authorized to track down allegedly criminal inaccuracies not only in newspapers and electronic media, but also in e-mail and telephone communications.
The new code reserves the toughest sanctions for journalists or others who receive foreign funding, such as the election monitoring group Sumate, which has been funded in part by the National Endowment for Democracy. Venezuelans or foreigners living in the country can be punished with a 10- to 15-year sentence for receiving foreign support that "can prejudice the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela . . . or destabilize the social order," whatever that means. Persons accused of conspiring against the government with a foreign country can get 20 to 30 years in prison. The new code specifies that anyone charged with these crimes will not be entitled to legal due process. In other words, should Izarra determine that my Caracas-based colleagues continue to collude with the State Department against Venezuela, they could be summarily jailed.
Chavez and his propaganda apparatus don't feel compelled to live by their own rules. The president has directed crude epithets at President Bush and even more vulgar sexual innuendo at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund Americans in the United States who write articles and letters glorifying Chavez and attacking the Bush administration. Izarra himself could be charged under his own slander law for his false claims about American journalists. Lucky for him his adversaries here are a democratic government, and a columnist who merely thinks he's ridiculous.