- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

During a visit to The Washington Times last week, journalists from Venezuela detailed the physical dangers they are facing. And to the extent that the freedom of the press gauges the health of a country's democracy, the intimidation and harassment of the media in Venezuela signals a wider problem for the society and, if instability spreads, for the region.
Luis Alfonso Fernandez is probably Venezuela's most famous reporter. He and his cameramen covered, from the rooftop of a building in Caracas, snipers opening fire at protesters during the infamous demonstration against President Hugo Chavez on April 11 that killed 17 persons. Later, on April 13, as supporters of Mr. Chavez protested a short-lived coup, 23 protesters, probably supporters of the president, were killed.
Mr. Fernandez, a television reporter for Venevision, won a prestigious award from the king of Spain for his April 11 coverage, which documented a member of Mr. Chavez's party in the City Council of Caracas shooting at protesters. Mr. Chavez has charged Mr. Fernandez for fabricating his report in a computer.
Mr. Fernandez also said his colleagues in state-owned media companies suffer abuse from the anti-Chavistas. There were no reporters for state-owned media outlets present at the meeting, but a report put together by journalists lists numerous accounts of physical attacks on journalists for state-owned media.
"We didn't know who they were," said Mr. Fernandez, regarding the rooftop snipers. But after the footage was aired and some snipers were identified, he started getting death threats on a regular basis. Some journalists have been less lucky. One cameramen covering the April 11 protest was fatally shot in the head, said Mr. Fernandez. Another journalist, Alicia La Rotta, a reporter for the newspaper El Universal, said that she was physically assaulted by a member of military intelligence. Journalists photographed the man as he cocked back his fist to hit Mrs. La Rotta. She said she has since gotten numerous death threats, as well, and that her access to official sources has been limited.
Last month, the Chavez government began "administrative procedures" against media outlets for airing reports unflattering to the government. And in late January Mr. Chavez said: "The world should not be surprised if we start closing TV stations in Venezuela shortly," adding, "This is a country at war."
Regardless of how Mr. Chavez and his supporters regard the objectivity the press in Venezuela, the president would make a big mistake to limit its freedoms. After all, Mr. Chavez can use speeches and state-owned outlets to counter any perceived subjectivity or inaccuracies.
Weakened accountability could well result in serious human rights abuses in Venezuela, as seen in other places in the world.

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