The prosecutor-general’s office yesterday initiated proceedings against the Noticiero Digital news website on suspicion of “attacking constitutional order” and “supporting a coup d’état.” The move was in response to a direct request voiced by President Hugo Chávez 48 hours earlier during his Sunday TV programme “Aló Presidente.” A similar investigation was initiated against the website for the same reason last March .
“The president’s remonstrations against outspoken media often go no further than threats, but it is nonetheless disturbing so see the judicial system move into action solely because the president has requested it,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Such a presidential fiat directly violates the principles of the separation of powers and judicial independence."
The press freedom organisation continued: “It is also disturbing to see that the least comment or column can result in the media that publishes it being branded as an ‘enemy’ or a ‘danger,’ regardless of the value of the information or views it contains.”
The latest proceedings were prompted by an opinion piece posted on the Noticiero Digital website on 2 June by Roberto Carlos Olivares that talked of moves by “retired military officers and patriots” with a view to engineering a “civil-military transition” at the head of the government, possibly in 2011. Olivares made it clear in his forcefully-expressed article that he hoped to see this “transition” take place.
“The article was on the website to elicit comments,” Reporters Without Borders added. “It cannot be concluded that Noticiero Digital was ‘calling for a coup d’état.’ Given that President Chávez has many media outlets at his disposal, including a Twitter account and a blog, to permanently comment and react, the opening of judicial proceedings constitutes an act of intimidation and a spur to self-censorship.”
In an interview he gave Reporters Without Borders (see below), Noticiero Digital editor Juan Eduardo Smith deplored the fact that the government “is reacting ever more forcefully to people expressing views contrary to its own vision of the world.”
-What kind of impact has Noticiero Digital had?
Noticiero Digital is a news and opinion portal with discussion forums that gets a lot of visitors. We have more than 120,000 registered forum members who start up discussions and post comments in our forums every day. In terms of traffic, Noticiero Digital ranks 6,450th in the world and is the third most important news portal in Venezuela. We have more than 120 columnists who send us opinion pieces or allow them to appear on the site. Finally we have more than 26,000 Twitter followers and a growing group of bloggers.
-What happened last March, when judicial proceedings were brought against the website for the first time?
In mid-March, President Chávez asked the Prosecutor-General’s Office to investigate Noticiero Digital because of two comments posted by two visitors to the forums (falsely reporting the death of telecommunications minister Diosdado Cabello). Noticiero Digital explained at the time that they were posted by people who had registered as forum members just minutes before posting them, and that both comments were removed by our moderators within three hours, while the international standard in this kind of case is 24 to 48 hours.
-And now proceedings have been brought against you again...
President Chávez used his Sunday programme last Sunday, 6 June, to request an investigation into Noticiero Digital because of an opinion piece that one of our columnists had posted on 2 June. The columnists post their articles under their own name and surname. We issued a statement the next day saying that Noticiero Digital does not censor its columnists and that our role is quite the opposite – to permit the free flow of news and opinion on the assumption that this allows the truth to emerge.
-Do you think the government is targeting Noticiero Digital in particular? Are you expecting some kind of official sanction?
We are not sure. But we do think the Chávez government is reacting ever more forcefully to people expressing views contrary to its own vision of the world. Not for nothing is President Chávez’s slogan “Socialist fatherland or death.” The case of the politician Oswaldo Álvarez Paz and the case of the head of Globovisión, Guillermo Zuloaga, are good examples. We are not expecting any kind of punishment and we reiterate our readiness to cooperate in any investigation.
-Do you think proceedings of this kind lead to self-censorship? Has Noticiero Digital censored itself to avoid the government’s displeasure?
We have not censored ourselves. We maintain our editorial policies and our policy for moderating the forums, because we consider them to be reasonable. The only change we have made since the first call for an investigation was to temporarily suspend registration of new forum visitors. The forums are also continuing at the same level of activity. Incidentally, the forums have one very important characteristic – they are the only ones in Venezuela in which government supporters and opponents, and those who don’t side with either, can discuss things openly. We think this is a step in the right direction, especially given the high degree of polarisation in this country.
-Has Noticiero Digital received support from other websites and Internet users in Venezuela in these cases or have you been isolated?
Yes, we have received support and, what’s more, the requests for investigations into Noticiero Digital have been major news stories nationally and internationally. And we have been supported by our forum members, both those in Venezuela and those abroad.