Venezuela Targets Cable Station

President Hugo Chávez has declared that
President Hugo Chávez has declared that "no land is private," stirring fears of more state seizure of farms. (Miraflores Press Office Via Associated Press)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 15, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia -- The government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has taken actions that could shutter a private television news station, part of an offensive that has led to the seizure of foreign oil firms and a congressional effort to control the financing of nongovernmental organizations critical of the state.

Authorities have accused Globovisión, an anti-government cable station, of inciting panic through its coverage of a May 4 earthquake before authorities released an official report. Then Monday, the government announced that 39 foreign and domestic companies that provide services to the state-run oil company had been brought under government control.

Chávez also declared Sunday that "no land is private" in Venezuela, stirring fears of more state seizures of farms. Several top opposition leaders, meanwhile, are under investigation for corruption, and the federal government has stripped one of Chávez's most intractable foes, the mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, of the authority to control the city budget.

The government's latest measures, coming three months after Chávez won a referendum that permits him to run for office indefinitely, have increased tensions in the oil-rich country. Opposition groups have vowed to organize protests, and press-freedom organizations have cautioned that free expression may be in jeopardy.

"This is a new effort by the government to control the flow of information and to restrict the critical coverage of news," said Carlos Lauría, Americas program director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The result "of the permanent threats by the government . . . is a very damaging situation for Venezuelan society."

Venezuela has not closed any media outlets during Chávez's decade in power. But in May 2007, Chávez refused to renew the broadcast license of a stridently anti-government station, RCTV, accusing it of plotting against him. Harangues and threats against journalists are common, press-freedom groups say, and the state has made the creation of a parallel, pro-government media apparatus a priority.

Globovisión is particularly reviled by Chávez and his aides for giving voice to politicians and military officers who participated in a failed coup in 2002. But most recently, it was the station's quake coverage that angered Chávez.

"They are playing with fire, manipulating, inciting hatred," Chávez said Sunday on his television show.

He called Globovisión's director, Alberto Federico Ravell, a "crazy man" and said, "This has to end, or I will stop calling myself Hugo Chávez Frías."

On Monday, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said Globovisión was guilty of "media terrorism." Another official close to Chávez, Andrés Izarra, director of a state television channel, called Globovisión coverage part of a "ferocious campaign" against the government.

Authorities have not explained how the station's reporting on the quake, which caused little damage, panicked and divided the public.

Chávez has referred the case to the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission, which has begun administrative proceedings against Globovisión and special inspections of private television stations. The National Assembly has also been investigating Ravell, as well as other media executives, for participating in an alleged plot to assassinate Chávez.

"It doesn't seem to me that closure is imminent," Lauría said, referring to Globovisión. "But what's clear is the government is preparing the terrain so that can happen."

Ravell said Globovisión offered a factual report, citing the U.S. Geological Survey. Globovisión also questioned why authorities had not released information about the quake.

"We went on the air with the news, as would any news channel, without calling for class warfare, without scaring children," Ravell said by phone from Caracas.

In a recent report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, expressed concern about "acts of intimidation" against government foes, including statements by Chávez "that could have instigated the use of violence." The organization's Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression also noted attacks by a pro-Chávez group against Globovisión and said administrative actions taken by the government against reporters have been based on a "highly discretionary" application of the law.

The National Assembly is preparing a bill that would require that all foreign donations to NGOs be deposited in a government fund before disbursement. Government officials said that would permit the state to better control groups aiming to undermine Chávez; critics say the state simply wants to put the NGOs out of business.

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