Venezuelans worry Supreme Court ruling limits freedoms

CARACAS, Venezuela, AP

The Supreme Court ruled that no newspaper can promote a single political viewpoint in the majority of its columns and editorials unless it has declared its political leanings, sparking fears that the decision could curb freedom of speech.

The magistrates, appointed by government-controlled Congress, ruled that newspapers that do not strike this balance would violate a clause in the constitution that requires information to be “truthful.”

The decision, announced late Thursday, affects most Venezuelan newspapers, which dedicate the majority of their columns and editorials to criticizing President Hugo Chavez’s leftist government.

The ruling also said journalists, unlike other citizens, do not enjoy the constitutional “right to reply” to public criticism.

It was not immediately known what penalty violators would face.

Human rights activists on Friday condemned the ruling as a violation of freedom of speech.

“This is a discriminatory decision which places journalists in a rank in which they don’t have the right to reply. This decision is absolutely unconstitutional and it’s a serious affront to human rights,” Liliana Ortega, president of a prominent human rights group, Cofavic, told Union radio.

In a late Friday night television address, Chavez didn’t mention the ruling but he again accused the media of conspiring against his so-called “revolution” to reform an elitist and corrupt political system.

“The people should know who the owners of the media are. They coordinate with each other and have political purposes that are counter-revolutionary,” he said.

The InterAmerican Press Association, which fights for press freedoms in Latin America, has accused Chavez of trying to intimidate journalists. The SIP, as the organization is known, has also warned that the constitution’s “truthful” information clause could lead to censorship.

Chavez denies the SIP’s accusations and insists there is full freedom of speech in Venezuela because his government has not jailed or censored any journalist. The fiery nationalist came under criticism this week after threatening to deport foreigners who insult his government or Venezuela.

He reiterated his threat Friday night but clarified that he was referring to foreign visitors, not residents of Venezuela.

“The next man or woman who comes here and insults the president or insults Venezuelan institutions or insults the Venezuelan people will be declared persona non grata and therefore will be expelled,” he said.

The Supreme Court was ruling in a case brought by a political columnist who wanted to reply to accusations made against him by Chavez during the weekly radio show “Hello President.” Elias Santana accused Chavez of violating his “right to reply” by refusing to take his calls during the show.

The Supreme Court ruled that Santana does not enjoy the right to reply because he is a journalist with a weekly newspaper column and a radio program.

“The Supreme Court decided to continue caging freedom of expression. The decision … established criteria about that right with a frankly restrictive spirit,” wrote opposition newspaper TalCual in its front page editorial.

Santana called the ruling “unconstitutional” and said he would appeal the decision in the Costa Rica-based InterAmerican Court of Human Rights.