- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela Pablo Lopez has found that democracy doesn't necessarily guarantee freedom of the press.

The 46-year-old founder and editor of the weekly newspaper La Razon, who spent a week under house arrest last month, went into hiding Monday to avoid being re-arrested.

His crime: boycotting court hearings in a 10-month-old defamation case brought against him by Tobias Carrero, a childhood friend of and wealthy campaign contributor to President Hugo Chavez.

Besides the lawsuit, Mr. Lopez said that he had been placed under surveillance, and that he and his wife have received death threats.

For more than a year, the 5-year-old La Razon has reported on the business activities of Mr. Carrero, an insurance executive, citing reputed influence peddling and insider deals.

Besides his relationship with the president, Mr. Carrero, 46, is a business partner of Luis Miquilena, the powerful president of the interim Congress and Manuel Quijada, the Chavez-appointed president of the Judicial Restructuring Commission, which has sacked hundreds of judges for corruption.

"We were the first journalists to report what was going on inside the Chavez government," said Mr. Lopez in an interview in Caracas two weeks before he went into hiding. "We discovered the first irregularity two days after Chavez became president in February 1999."

Among other allegations, La Razon has reported that Mr. Carrero's company benefited from a lucrative insurance contract with the Venezuelan equivalent of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.; that Mr. Carrero had set up a dummy corporation to acquire control of 10 of 11 government-owned radio stations that were being privatized at public auction; and that Mr. Carrero illegally acquired more than 2,000 acres of land earmarked for peasants under a land-reform plan.

Mr. Lopez was arrested on July 8 for refusing to answer subpoenas issued by a trial judge who, he argued, was biased against him.

A judicial ombudsman agreed that the judge was biased and the judge recused himself.

His replacement ordered Mr. Lopez released from custody on July 13, but on Aug. 4 ordered him again placed under house arrest for boycotting an Aug. 4 hearing.

Mr. Lopez's attorney, Omar Estacio, said the house-arrest order violated "basic rules of criminal procedure, which do not expressly prescribe house arrest for contempt."

Mr. Estacio told the Washington Times that he had submitted the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (ICHR) in Washington, an agency of the Organization of American States.

"Unfortunately, the ICHR is not famous for being speedy," he said.

Mr. Chavez was re-elected in a landslide on July 30, and his Fifth Republic Movement won a majority of the seats in the new 165-member unicameral National Assembly.

Ironically, Mr. Chavez was a columnist for Mr. Lopez's publication for two years before he was elected president, and Mr. Lopez insisted he had no personal animosity toward Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Carrero sued Mr. Lopez for defamation in October, and a judge ordered Mr. Lopez not to refer to Mr. Carrero in La Razon. But the investigative reports have continued.

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