Journalists under attack from "pro-coup rogue police forces" in Venezuelain

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Wed Aug 7 17:09:29 MDT 2002

[ part I ]

Open Letter to Robert Ménard, Reporters Without Borders

An Open Letter to Robert Ménard of
Reporters Without Borders

July 29, 2002

Mr. Robert Ménard, rsf at
Reporters Without Borders
Reporters sans frontières
5, rue Geoffroy-Marie
75009 Paris - France
Tel. 33 1 44 83 84 84
Fax. 33 1 45 23 11 51

CC: Washington office, yareds at; New York office,
tdowlats at; Argentina office, jlb_bvl at

CC: Immedia Working Group, salonchingon at, Narco News subscribers,
narconews at, members of the media

Dear Mr. Ménard,

My name is Al Giordano. I have been a professional journalist since 1988 and
today I write you in my capacity as publisher of The Narco News Bulletin - -- an online newspaper that reports on the drug war and
democracy from Latin America.

I write to inform you of specific acts and immediate threats against
journalists in Venezuela, and to ask you 12 questions, as a journalist,
about your organization's previous statements regarding press freedom issues
in that country. I hope that your organization will take immediate action to
defend these journalists at risk, and that you will offer full and honest
answers to the 12 questions.

Your organization, Reporters Without Borders, prominently displays these
good words from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall
include freedom to seek receive and impart information and ideas of all
kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in
the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."

This wonderful sentence doesn't say that "only some people shall have the
right to freedom of expression." It doesn't say that "only commercial
journalists" shall enjoy this right. It says that "everyone" shall enjoy
this right. That spirit was embraced recently by the New York Supreme Court,
in December 2001, in the landmark ruling in our own favor that, for the
first time, extended First Amendment rights in the United States under
Sullivan v. NY Times to Internet journalists. A copy of that decision can be
read online at the website of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

I write to you today about your organization's statements regarding press
freedom issues in Venezuela, in which you have made very gross errors that,
in fact, have endangered many journalists and contributed to a climate of
impunity by pro-coup rogue police forces in that country who are now making
more frequent and systematic attacks against journalists. In a moment, I
will provide you facts to support this concern.

We are not the first journalists to raise this worry about your
organization's behavior. The globally respected authentic journalist,
Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, stated last month after
his own fact-finding mission to Venezuela:

"Closing its eyes to the one of the most odious media campaigns ever
launched against a democratic government, the organisation Reporters sans
Frontières has allowed itself to be manipulated and has published several
reports against the Chavez government, which has never limited freedom of
expression, banned media, or arrested a journalist."

Today, Narco News, together with colleagues in authentic journalism and
independent media, has launched an international dialogue about the role of
"press freedom" organizations. We are focusing on the three such
organizations with the largest budgets: the New York-based CPJ, the
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the Miami-based Inter-American
Press Association.

The catalyst for this international dialogue, which we have begun on our own
website as well as through the networks and others, was
our recent fact-finding mission to Venezuela, where we encountered a very
different set of circumstances and facts than those described by Reporters
Without Borders' statements regarding events in Venezuela.

In fact, we found that an entire class of journalists in Venezuela is under
attack and has been left undefended by your organization and the other
large-budget "press freedom" organizations: the journalists of the Community
Media, particularly those from the 25 non-profit TV and radio stations that
were legalized under Venezuela's Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 and the
Telecommunications Law of 2001.

The home page of your organization's website states: "Today, 115 journalists
are in prison." Today we inform you, sadly, that you can raise that number
to 118. Three more have recently been illegally arrested by rogue police
forces (the same ones that participated in the April 2002 coup attempt in
that country), targeted specifically for their practice of journalism, all
of them respected radio journalists: Nicolás Rivera of Radio Perola, and
Jorge Quintero and Lenín Méndez of Radio Senderos, both non-profit Community
Broadcasters in the greater Caracas area.

You can read more about them - and other threats against press freedom so
far ignored by your organization - in Part I of our series, published today,
on the media in Venezuela:

We also bring your attention to serious threats against these journalists
and others like them that have come not from governmental institutions, but,
rather, from commercial media institutions.

Specifically, this threat has been executed by Miguel Angel Martínez, the
president of the private-sector Chamber of Radio Broadcasters who recently
called upon his organization's affiliates to "interfere" with the
frequencies of the Community Media outlets during the next coup d'etat
attempt in Venezuela (Mr. Martínez was a co-signer, last April 12th, with
the military-installed dictator Pedro Carmona, of the decree that abolished
the national Congress, the Supreme Court and the Constitution in Venezuela.)

It is very clear to me, based on my first-hand reporting, that the entire
"issue" of press freedom in Venezuela turns conventional and outmoded
thinking about "freedom of the press" on its head (much as our legal defense
against Banamex-Citigroup caused the New York Supreme Court to rethink and
expand upon existing First Amendment protections, applying them to Internet

This international dialogue - and I hope you and others from Reporters
Without Borders will participate in a spirit of full disclosure,
self-criticism, self-correction and open-mindedness - has many aspects,
precisely because it is long overdue.

Today, I challenge the factual accuracy and fairness of many of your
organization's statements, based on my own reporting in Venezuela last

In Reporters Without Borders' annual report, you wrote:

"Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela and a great admirer of Fidel Castro,
raised concern with his inflammatory statements against the media and
observers wondered if the former soldier and author of a failed coup in 1992
would turn into a dictator. The verbal threats of previous years grew in
2001 to include new kinds of intimidation such as a threat to withdraw a TV
station's broadcasting licence, the threat of a tax inspection and a supreme
court ruling that would curb press freedom."

Your worry, expressed here, was stated in the hypothetical future tense:
wondering if Venezuela's democratically elected president "would turn into a

The fact is that the commercial factions you have defended, abusing the
cause of "press freedom" on behalf of a partisan political agenda, turned
out to be the real dictators when they took, at gunpoint, the chance to
govern. They banned Congress, the Supreme Court and the Constitution. They
sent their troops house to house illegally detaining and arresting elected
political leaders, citizens and journalists who were critical of their coup.

And I remind you that what you have really criticized the Chávez government
over is the elected president's use of the very right you claim to defend:

Given that your organization, Reporters Without Borders, receives, according
to your website, 44-percent of its income from the European Commission, you
are in no position to criticize any government for using speech.

Furthermore, you do the cause of freedom of expression a grave disservice by
confusing speech with repression: and you cheapen efforts to combat the very
real attacks against journalists, like the recent attacks cited in this
letter, with this distracting stance equating speech with "attacks." You
should instead be applauding those sectors of Civil Society and its elected
leaders who use speech - including strong speech - to air their grievances
against the very real and corrupt abuses by many sectors of the commercial
media. The people and leaders who use speech are demonstrating the
alternative to violence and repression. This ought to a basic principle and
understanding of an organization that traffics in the defense of press

Reporters Without Borders is, in reality (although you might protest the
characterization), a quasi-governmental agency. You are funded by
governments: How can you suggest that governments should not use speech? You
should be encouraging speech as the alternative to state repression against

Your apparent ideological bias, bizarre hostility to the results of
democratic elections in Venezuela, and shoddy use of "guilt by association"
tactics is unworthy of serious journalistic practice, and certainly cheapens
the respectability of your own "press freedom" organization.

For all your stated concern about the 115 journalists you list as imprisoned
today, you have unfairly overlooked the fact that, until the past month,
there was not a single journalist imprisoned in Venezuela, and you have so
far remained silent over the epidemic of attacks by pro-coup forces against
the Community Media: It is no wonder, then, that with the wealthiest "press
freedom" groups on earth silent when it came to defending truly independent
journalists that the rogue pro-coup police elements felt the impunity to
raid and arrest these journalists for their journalistic practice.

Were you at all surprised when a dictatorship emerged not from the Chávez
government, but from the very forces your organization has championed,
including the commercial media in Venezuela? Don't you feel that your
organization's unprofessional behavior during this hemisphere's greatest
political crisis in almost 30 years requires you, now, to engage in some
public soul-searching and correction of your errors?

In your organization's fictional account of the events during the days of
the April coup d'etat, you wrote:

"The Venezuelan stations have since said they did not show such footage
because doing so would have been dangerous for their journalists on the job
and that scenes of looting in Caracas could have encouraged similar
outbreaks in the provinces. Gustavo Cisneros, president of the Diego
Cisneros Organisation and owner of Venevisión, added that the TV silence was
also to do with practical considerations, such as the absence of pictures to
back up the news reports."

The fact is, Mr. Ménard, that the commercial TV owners censored their own
reporters from broadcasting news they had already collected, and "pictures"
(video) of events was, at very least, available through CNN and other
international news agencies for those stations to utilize (although, really,
do anchorpersons need "pictures" to convey the most newsworthy stories? Your
argument - defending Cisneros and the others - is specious and not credible,
and we have a right to expect more from a "press freedom" organization).

What is clear today is that the commercial TV stations belonging to Mr.
Cisneros and the other owners - the very forces that encouraged the coup
d'etat to begin with and cheered it as it occurred - imposed a news blackout
only when it became clear that the Venezuelan public had taken to the
streets and was in the process of turning back the violent coup that the
commercial media had supported.

Our story, published today, reports:

"The Human Rights group PROVEA (the Venezuelan Education-Action Program on
Human Rights), on April 13th, reported that, "A journalist who asked not to
be identified, the Production Chief of one of the principal TV channels in
the country, denounced that the directors of the company impeded the
journalists from transmitting information about the current events."

"In place of news during the most newsworthy events in the nation's history,
the big TV chains played "Tom and Jerry" cartoons, movies and re-runs.

"The role of Internet journalists in breaking the information blockade
outside of Venezuela was the subject of our April 18th report. But within
Venezuela, only the Community Media journalists stood between democracy and
dictatorship, and they saved the day."

Today, the Community Media journalists are being systematically persecuted
by the pro-coup forces and by the commercial media that you have championed.

Obviously, some of the issues raised here may be difficult, and you may well
disagree with the opinions expressed in Part I and future segments of our
series on the media in Venezuela, particularly as they pertain to your
organization. For that reason, I offer you the opportunity to respond on the
pages of Narco News, and will publish your responses in full without
censorship on our pages.

I ask for your thorough and honest answers to the following questions:

1. Will Reporters Without Borders, now having been informed of a different
set of facts than your organization has so far admitted, investigate and
denounce the illegal detentions of radio journalists Nicolás Rivera of Radio
Perola, and Jorge Quintero and Lenín Méndez of Radio Senderos?

2. Will Reporters Without Borders address the root cause of these attacks:
the existence of rogue police forces and coup-plotters that enjoy a
particular kind of impunity precisely because they are supported by the
commercial media corporations of Venezuela?

3. Will Reporters Without Borders finally denounce the illegal raids and
threats on April 11th, 12th and 13th 2002 by the Carmona dictatorship
against Radio Perola, Radio Catia Libre, TV Catia and Radio Fé y Alegría
(broadcaster of the Catholic Church)?

4. Will Reporters Without Borders finally denounce the April coup attempt -
and any future coup attempts in Venezuela or against any democratically
elected government on earth - as a prima facie threat to press freedom?

5. Will Reporters Without Borders consider a public apology to the Community
Media journalists of Venezuela, and to the public at large, for having been
"asleep at the wheel" in not having denounced the coup d'etat as it was
happening last April, and make the internal organizational corrections to
ensure that this kind of negligence by a press-freedom organization will
never happen again during a time of crisis?

6. Of particular interest to those of us who are Internet journalists (and
of obvious personal interest to Narco News and me): Does Reporters Without
Borders embrace the case law established by the New York Supreme Court in
December 2001 in the case of Banco v. Menéndez et al, which established, A.
a higher standard upon Plaintiffs in libel lawsuits for establishing
jurisdiction on foreign journalists in U.S. courts, and; B. the landmark
ruling that extended First Amendment protections (under Sullivan v. NY
Times) in the United States to Internet journalists if we engage in
responsible and basic journalistic practices?

These are difficult times for the profession of journalism and for
journalists, because, increasingly, the threats to our safety and free
speech are coming from within the industry itself: from the corporate owners
of TV, radio, print and commercial Internet news organizations.
Again, the attempted coup in Venezuela last April was a watershed moment
that revealed this problem, now of epidemic proportions, to the global

The landscape of journalism itself has changed radically in recent years,
with the wave of mergers and acquisitions and the increased concentration of
media ownership in the hands of fewer and fewer companies. Many, if not
most, of these companies are no longer exclusively dedicated to news
gathering and reporting. The conflicts-of-interest by news organizations
with the interests of there own owners thus pile up like traffic at rush
hour. Commercial journalism has lost its ethical and societal context and
strayed very far from the role envisioned and protected by the First
Amendment of the United States Constitution and similar laws in other lands.
When it comes to threats to press freedom, the media has met the enemy and,
to quote Pogo, "it is us."

This radical change in the news gathering environment - a change from above
and from within the media industry - forces, in my opinion, any organization
dedicated to the protection of journalists and press-freedom to reassess and
correct its activities bringing them up to date with the times and the
actual situation. Obviously, this is a cause for soul-searching by all of us
who are journalists or who wish to be authentic journalists, and for the
organizations that defend our rights. And yet the change in reality is so
sudden and extreme that we must rethink almost all of our past assumptions.

However, it is also obvious that the attempted coup d'etat in Venezuela,
which threatened to turn back the clocks of democracy and press-freedom
thirty years in the entire hemisphere, is a matter that should take priority
over all other threats against press freedom. If that coup d'etat had
succeeded, your job would have become a hundred times more difficult not
only in Venezuela, but in your role of protecting journalists throughout
Latin America (just as the 1973 coup in Chile caused a chain reaction of
repression and attacks against the press throughout South America with
Operation Condor spreading the terror to Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay,
Bolivia, Perú, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela throughout the
1970s, 80s and 90s).

Specifically, regarding the ongoing present-day situation in Venezuela,
there is no reason or justification to wait: Action is needed now,
immediately, to address and correct root causes of threats to press freedom
and against journalists. And to do this task effectively, Reporters Without
Borders and other organizations like it must correct errors already made.

My next set of questions is:

7. Will Reporters Without Borders investigate and denounce the censorship by
all of the commercial television stations in Venezuela on April 12th and
13th 2002 against their own journalists, that - nobody today disputes that
there was a news blackout - prevented their own journalists from reporting
the facts about the counter-coup by Civil Society against the
military-installed dictatorship of those days?

8. Will Reporters Without Borders investigate and denounce the threats by
Miguel Angel Martínez of the Chamber of Radio Broadcasters to "interfere"
with the frequencies of Community radio and TV broadcasters utilizing the
technology and equipment of the commercial broadcasters affiliated with his

9. Will Reporters Without Borders investigate and denounce the forced
closure of Channel 8 - the public television network in Venezuela - by the
Carmona dictatorship in April 2002 and the complete silence by the
commercial media about this threat upon a public media outlet?

10. What is Reporters Without Borders' position on the participation by
commercial news gathering organizations such as the daily El Nacional and
the daily La Hora in Venezuela in censoring their own pages last April 9th
in order to join a politically-partisan "national strike" that - it is clear
to everyone, in retrospect - had the goal of provoking the April 11th coup

I will address some of the issues regarding Question # 10 in a moment, when
we discuss, below, whether public speech is, in reality, a threat to public
speech, as Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly claimed regarding

[ end Part I ]

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