Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

VENEZUELA: Journalists Face Escalation of Violence

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Jan 21 2009 (IPS) - With chilling calm, the killer dismounted from the motorbike, pulled out his gun and shot Ores Sambrano through the head as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The journalist was on his way to a video store on a busy avenue in Valencia, an industrial town 100 kilometres west of the Venezuelan capital.

Sambrano, 63, was a lawyer as well as a journalist. He was the editor of the political weekly ABC, a columnist for the newspaper Notitarde and vice president of the radio station Radio América, all of them based in Valencia, and was known for investigative reporting on drug trafficking and corruption networks.

He was murdered on Jan. 16, the same day that a Commission for the Protection of Journalists (CONAPRO) was formed in Caracas, made up of the Press Workers’ Union (SNTP), the National Association of Journalists (CNP), the Circle of Graphic Reporters (CRGV) and the media observatory Espacio Público (Public Forum).

Just a few days earlier, on Jan. 13, unidentified assailants shot from a car window at reporter Rafael Finol in the doorway of his workplace, the El Regional newspaper in Acarigua, a city on the plains about 350 kilometres southwest of Caracas, wounding him in the face. The 62-year-old reporter escaped with his life only because he turned his head slightly right before the bullet struck.

“I’m lucky to be alive, and I want to say that no government official has been trying to intimidate me. This is the beginning of an escalation of violence, and every journalist in the country should watch out,” said Finol, who is a supporter of the government of President Hugo Chávez.

And on Jan. 1, Jacinto López, a 22-year-old reporter and photographer, was kidnapped along with fellow-journalist Ricardo Marapacuto by gunmen who drove them by car along roads close to the city of Barquisimeto, 300 kilometres west of Caracas.

The kidnappers then shot them, killing López and wounding Marapacuto, who saved his life by playing dead. He later testified that the murderers had talked about having been paid 1,000 dollars for the killings.

Sambrano’s killer neither stole his car, which was parked just a few metres away, nor robbed the journalist, who was carrying a sizeable sum of money. He fired, mounted the motorbike driven by his accomplice and disappeared into the congested traffic of Valencia, according to the stories of half a dozen eye-witnesses.

Carlos Correa, the coordinator of Espacio Público, told IPS that “a likely hypothesis is that Sambrano was murdered by hired killers acting on behalf of drug trafficking networks, although we are making sure the police keep their word to investigate all the angles.

“In these and other cases of attacks on journalists, strong action is required by the state, the government, the police, the prosecution service and the courts, in order to prevent impunity from taking root, which would lead to more crimes and self-censorship” in the media, Correa said.

Self-censorship is already happening. Journalists in the southeast of the country along the Colombian border, and from the northeastern Caribbean coast, told IPS that they avoid covering touchy topics like the actions of hired killers, the penetration of the country by foreign organised crime, drug trafficking or corruption, for fear of violent reprisals.

Correa recalled the case of Mauro Marcano, a journalist murdered Sept. 1, 2004 in Maturín, a city in the oil-rich east of the country, after he aired accusations of collusion between drug trafficking organisations and the police on his radio programme and in press columns.

Then vice president José Vicente Rangel (2003-2007), who is himself a journalist, said that Marcano’s murder was “an emblematic crime” because it was the first time that drug cartels had killed a reporter in Venezuela.

Ceferino García, accused by Marcano of heading a drug gang known as the “Cartel del Sol,” was prosecuted for planning the journalist’s murder. He was alleged to have paid 40,000 dollars to hired killers. Recusals of judges, lawyers and jurors led to his acquittal on the grounds of insufficient evidence in August 2008.

Rangel, who by then had left the government, said the acquittal was “Marcano’s second death.”

With these recent deaths “the journalistic profession is in mourning. These killings are added to dozens of attempted murders and attacks on freedom of expression in the last few months. They want to trample on our profession, but we will not allow this to happen and we will not be silenced,” the head of the National Association of Journalists, William Echeverría, told IPS.

“Unfortunately, the violent discourse broadcast on radio and television creates a sort of cascade effect,” said Echeverría, referring to the impassioned speeches, constantly calling for confrontations between political adversaries, delivered over the last decade by Chávez, who has been president since 1999.

This January “has been a dire month for freedom of expression in Venezuela,” Gregorio Salazar, the secretary general of the SNTP and director of the Latin America office of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), told IPS.

“Two reporters have been murdered, another survived an attempt on his life, and a string of criminal attacks and serious violations of press freedom have been committed, including the decision by Congress to deny access to parliament,” said Salazar, referring to restrictions imposed on access by reporters from private media outlets.

The non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says it was “dismayed” by the fatal shooting of Sambrano and the attempt on Finol’s life. “These two shooting attacks in the space of three days raise grave concerns about the safety of journalists,” an RSF statement said.

“Sambrano may have been the victim of a reprisal for his recent coverage of a drug story. He had recently covered several drug trafficking cases including one involving the Makled family, an influential business family in the region,” RSF said.

“Brothers Abdala, Alex and Basel Makled were arrested in possession of around 400 kilos of cocaine during a search of a family property on 14 November and are now the subject of an investigation by the national prosecutor’s office,” the Paris-based organisation said.

The IFJ and the Federation of Latin American and Caribbean Journalists (FEPALC) also expressed “deep concern about the spiralling violence against media in Venezuela,” recalled Sambrano’s reports on the Makled family, and demanded an immediate, independent investigation to identify the culprits and bring them to justice.

FEPALC, in a document signed by its president Celso Schroeder, of Brazil, and human rights secretary Zuliana Lainez, of Peru, asked its affiliated organisations to make their views known to Venezuelan embassies in the region, and to “demand that the Venezuelan state fulfil its duty to guarantee freedom of expression.”

The chief of Venezuela’s judicial police, Wilmer Flores, and 30 detectives from the force’s Caracas headquarters have gone to Valencia to investigate Sambrano’s murder.

“We are making comparisons and gathering evidence in this and other cases, to determine different lines of investigation. We are at a preliminary stage and are keeping an open mind on all possible theories,” Flores said.

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