Monday, November 27, 2006

You are Free to Express Yourself, As Long As...

by Alex Beech

During these unusual times, any measure threatening the freedom of expression in Venezuela induces a yawn. When journalists were assaulted by military officers outside of the presidential palace a few days ago, no one really clamored for justice. In a government dominated by one man, bruises are part of the game.

Every time anyone questions press freedom in Venezuela, including very reputable organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, someone stands up and points at the opposition pundits who cackle all day long on television and radio. “There’s never been more freedom of expression in Venezuela,” they cry. Look at the private channels!

But is there really freedom of expression in Venezuela?

Are journalists free to express themselves when reporters and their crews are attacked while covering events, often after Chavez has threatened their networks?

Are journalists free to express themselves when Chavez says during a campaign rally, “don’t be surprised when the private media’s concessions aren’t renewed”?

Are journalists free to express themselves when Chavez interrupts their regular programming and forces them to broadcast one of his inaugurations or speeches?

Are journalists free to express themselves when they must attend workshops to understand how criticizing the president violates the law?

Are journalists free to express themselves when their coverage could be deemed, “inciteful violence,” which would violate the law and bring repercussions?

Are journalists free to express themselves when government officials belittle them during press conferences, often ignoring them or answering them with disdain?

Are journalists free to express themselves when they are not allowed the same access to an event as journalists who work for state-controlled media?

Are journalists free to express themselves when many of their colleagues have been shot and killed while covering political events?

During the next week, freedom of expression will be a critical element of democracy in Venezuela. If Chavez is a democratic president, as he claims, he must allow the private media to cover the presidential elections with no interruptions or censorship. International observers, staying in hotels throughout Caracas, must monitor and report whether the private media is allowed access to voting centers and the National Elections Council. How the elections are covered before and after the elections will have an enormous impact on the future of Venezuela. Venezuelans have a fundamental right to information, and journalists have a right to provide it, without the threat of bruises, and even death.

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