Venezuela Threatens To Close Opposition TV Station
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We just heard of some of the advantages that an incumbent president can get when the state television broadcasters are on his side. Let's go next to Venezuela, where there is one opposition television station remaining on the airwaves and the president is threatening to close it down.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez's government is moving against this TV station, which has press freedom groups raising questions about the future of democracy in a highly polarized country. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas.
JUAN FORERO: Since taking power a decade ago, President Hugo Chavez has had a thing about Globovision. The anti-government news station regularly skewers Chavez, and Chavez appears to have had his fill. His government has launched three investigations against Globovision.
President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: It has to end, Chavez says in one recent speech, referring to Globovision. He then says that, quote, "That crazy man with the cannon has to end or my name isn't Hugo Chavez." The crazy man Chavez referred to is Alberto Federico Ravell, news director at Globovision. Ravell says that over the years he's heard it all, but he says he's never heard Chavez this aggressive.
Mr. ALBERTO FEDERICO RAVELL (Globovision): He wants to shut down the only free television station that still gives the Venezuelan people and the international people all the news of the good and bad things that are happening in our country.
FORERO: Globovision journalists are feeling the heat. Some have been assaulted. Mostly it's verbal attacks and threats from government officials, or, like Jeanelie Briceno, they're being refused access to official functions.
On a recent day, Briceno couldn't get into the press conference at Chavez's Socialist Party headquarters. The man at the door dressed in red and big as a bouncer told her you are not invited.
He read off a list of who could attend: state television stations and those private networks that had toned down negative coverage. Briceno was locked out.
Ms. JEANELI BRICENO (Globovision): (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: She says Globovision's G, the icon on her microphone, spells trouble. The latest friction came after Globovision reported on a minor earthquake last month before the government had released an official report. Globovision's coverage was brief, reporting a few details about the quake and urging Venezuelans to stay calm, so it's not entirely clear why it so upset the government.
But Chavez was furious, and government officials accused the station of terrorism and inciting panic. In his speech, Chavez even ordered the attorney general, the supreme court president, and the television regulator to advance an investigation of Globovision's coverage. Carlos Lauria works with the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
Mr. CARLOS LAURIA (Committee to Protect Journalists): By threatening direct action against the media and by ordering officials to do it, the president is overstepping his authority clearly. Our concern is that this is a direct attack against freedom of expression.
FORERO: Chavez and his ministers frequently accuse Globovision of plotting assassination attempts. And they say the station participated in a 2002 coup that removed Chavez for two days. Globovision did black out coverage of a counter coup that put Chavez back in power.
The station also gave favorable coverage to Chavez's foes. But investigations of Globovision alleged role went nowhere and no one at the station was charged in the over the overthrow.
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FORERO: Globovision is a 24-hour all-news station and it covers events large and small, like the recent crash of the Air France airliner. On a recent day, editors discussed a range of stories, many of them unfavorable to the government. Ravell, the news director, says the station can still say what it wants.
Mr. RAVELL: Is there freedom of expression of the press? I would say yes, but it's a big risk. You risk your life. You risk your concession.
FORERO: But he says that covering the news in Venezuela these days can carry serious consequences.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.
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