President Jaime Lusinchi has pressed executives of a leading newspaper here to halt investigative articles on police involvement in drug traffic and criticism of the government's recently signed foreign debt agreement, according to several sources.
Lusinchi also demanded that a columnist for the newspaper, El Diario de Caracas, no longer write critical commentaries, according to the columnist, Alfredo Tarre. The president's pressure led to the cancellation of a popular TV interview show, "Up Front," whose host has been the leading critic of the debt agreement, other sources said.
The editor of El Diario, Rodolfo Schmidt, was jailed for making public a police report that said an alternate congressman had made a spectacle of himself last year while drunk in public.
Schmidt, who was released in early May after 36 days in jail, said the justice minister had him arrested because his newspaper's investigative pieces had embarrassed the government and then had him freed after "Up Front" was canceled and El Diario was reined in.
The allegations of strictures on press freedom have surprised many Venezuelans, who take pride in stating that their country is South America's most enduring democracy and a firm defender of human rights in the hemisphere.
Lusinchi and top government officials met three times in April with executives from the Radio Caracas group, which owns El Diario and the TV station that offered "Upfront."
"If you sit down with the president for a while, you find out what's bothering him," said Radio Caracas President Peter Bottome. He said Lusinchi complained about El Diario's investigations of alleged police involvement in drug smuggling and contract murders, charges of government officials siphoning off milk subsidies, and the foreign debt agreement.
Bottome said he then ordered El Diario to halt the investigations.
Government officials deny they pressured Radio Caracas. "We meet with them from time to time, but we did not discuss anything involving pressure against El Diario," said Interior Minister Octavio Lepage.
"The media is subject to pressure. That's no secret," said Bottome, declining to say whether Lusinchi threatened to take action if Radio Caracas did not restrict El Diario's reporting.
Others directly affected said the government formed by Lusinchi's social-democratic Democratic Action party did threaten Radio Caracas. "Lusinchi made it very clear that changes had to be made or else," said one knowledgeable observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The government is cracking down because Lusinchi's popularity has plummeted with the weakening of the oil-dependent economy, analysts say. A recent poll showed 23 percent would vote for the government if an election were held tomorrow, versus 42 percent two years ago.
The main opposition party, COPEI, only rose to 19 from 15 percent in the polls, with a majority of the remaining electorate saying they would not vote for either party.
With a vacuum of opposition, the Lusinchi administration believes that El Diario, through its investigations, has become its main opponent, said Schmidt and others.
Tarre said he decided to stop writing his column after executives of El Diario told him Lusinchi ordered that he could no longer criticize the president. Bottome said Lusinchi was unhappy with Tarre's column but declined to say whether he demanded that it be discontinued.
"How can you write a political column if you can't criticize the president?" asked Tarre.
Bottome said Radio Caracas had to bow to the government in order to free Schmidt, who was officially arrested for libeling a congressman. Immunities provided congressmen under Venezuelan law are not, however, extended to alternate, or substitute, legislators.
Justice Minister Jose Manzo Gonzalez, who has called the newspaper's investigative reports a "conspiracy against the government," denied that the administration was responsible for Schmidt's jailing or his release.
Many note, however, that Schmidt was freed the day after "Up Front" host Marcel Granier canceled his show that had criticized the debt renegotiation. "That was no coincidence," said Eduardo Fernandez, the general secretary of COPEI, which is trying to stir public opinion against the government on the issue of press freedom.
El Diario's most spectacular articles charged that government security forces were implicated in the deaths of six men, whose skeletons were found in abandoned wells in western Venezuela.
The reporter who broke the story, Ibeyise Pacheco, said that as many as 60 persons are missing after last being seen in police custody. She charged that many of those missing were linked to members of a special police force involved in drug smuggling, vehicle theft, armed robbery, kidnaping, extortion and murder.
Pacheco continued to write about the cases, despite what she charged were several death threats and police harassment, until halted by Bottome. "I'm very disappointed," she said. "The government is covering up police involvement in murders and this should be made public." Two paramilitary judicial policemen later were charged in connection with one of the cases.