March 14, 2006

Frenchies horrified to be subjected to the Fidel Playbook

Ok, ok...official headline: RSF calls for dialogue with government in letter to new information minister.
Attn. Mr. Willian Lara
Minister of Communications and Information

Dear Minister:

Reporters Without Borders would like to take advantage of your installation as Minister of Communication and Information on 9 March to refer to recent exchanges between the government you represent and our organisation. Our hope is to establish the basis for a real dialogue.

As a press freedom organisation, we recently issued two releases about cases currently before the courts that appear to be causing a controversy in the news media and public opinion in Venezuela. The first, on 27 February, took the form of an open letter to your predecessor, Yuri Pimentel, querying contempt of court proceedings against several news media. The second was about the detention on 7 March of Televisora del Táchira presenter Gustavo Azócar Alcalá on charges of fraud and embezzlement.

We were both astonished and shocked at the violence if the statements issued by your ministry on 1 and 9 March in response to our releases. We even posted - on the Spanish-language version of our website - Mr. Pimentel’s response to our open letter to him.

We were shocked because these statements contained many false accusations against Reporters Without Borders. The 9 March statement charged us with being “in the pay of the US government and secret services” and with undertaking “the media sabotage against the Bolivarian Revolution” ; In the eyes of your government, we were guilty of “defaming the Venezuelan people, despising Venezuela and meddling in its internal affairs”.

All this was said to be “with the complicity of the seditious opposition and the privately-owned media, in a new media offensive that is part of the psychological war operations of the Empire - the United States - designed to justify its aggression against Venezuelan democracy”.

In both cases, we just expressed our concern about specific legal issues without questioning the principle of the proceedings and without in any way denigrating the authorities responsible. Concern does not mean condemnation.

It is the job of every NGO to question democratic governments about the principles or causes they claim to defend. We have, it is true, criticised parts of the law on the social responsibility of the news media and the criminal code reform law. We fear that some of the provisions of these laws restrict press freedom. But have we said there will be no more press freedom in Venezuela ? No, we have not. And criticising a law is not the same as condemning a government.

This is the reason for our astonishment. On the one hand, we know that the situation of journalists is much more dramatic in countries such as Mexico and Colombia in which, unlike Venezuela, they are exposed to reprisals from armed groups. On the other hand, we also condemned the imprisonment of Judith Miller of The New York Times from July to September 2005 in the United States just for refusing to reveal her sources to the judicial authorities.

We have also paid a great deal of attention to the case of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj, who has been held for nearly four years on the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay without specific charges being brought against him and in conditions that violate all international human rights conventions. We urge you to read our recent report, available on our website, which has a title that could not be clearer about its content : “Camp Bucca and Guantánamo : when American imprisons journalists”. We are ready to send you a copy.

We have not failed to understand the role of certain privately-owned Venezuelan news media during the period of the April 2002 coup, and we stressed this at the time. We therefore find it all the harder to understand why your government is the only one to be unable to tolerate any criticism at all.

Finally, we do indeed receive funding from the National Endowment for Democracy. This financing represents 3 per cent of our budget - our accounts are public - and, aside from the fact that it comes from the US congress and not the White House, it is assigned to our activities in support of imprisoned African journalists. It has nothing to do with western hemisphere.

I very much hope your will heed our appeal.


Robert Ménard

There's something touching, almost quaint, about RSF's tone here...something about their earnest explanations about what they use their NED funding for (as though that's gonna make a difference), something about their shock that a government can't understand that "criticising a law is not the same as condemning a government." It all makes you wonder if they've really been paying attention.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big RSF fan, but they're about six years behind the curve on this one: Venezuelan dissidents were writing in this tone all the way back in 2000, when we questioned the adoption of Chavez's 49 decree-laws under Enabling Legislation only to be roundly abused as counterrevolutionary elements, enemies of the people, etc. etc.

Time lag and all, it's interesting to see a high-profile foreign NGO going through the same process we all went through back then, coming to understand the autocratic core of a regime that slams moderate and radical critics alike, with the same self-righteous intolerance and rhetorical brutality. Slowly, but surely, the penny is dropping in Paris: chavismo recognizes no space for legitimate dissent.