Looking smart in red pants and a summer blouse, television reporter Jeanelie Briceño arrived at the headquarters of President Hugo Chávez's United Socialist Party last week expecting to get in, just like every other journalist showing up for a scheduled news conference.
"You were not invited," said the man at the door, as big as a bouncer and dressed in the government's trademark red.
The man checked off the names of the networks permitted inside -- they were all either state-owned or private stations that have markedly toned down their critiques of the president. Briceño was the only person locked out. Her employer, Globovisión, is the sole vociferously anti-government network still broadcasting on Venezuela's public airwaves.
In recent weeks, officials in this country -- where the government controls a media apparatus devoted to glowing coverage of the president -- have appeared increasingly obsessed with the 24-hour, all-news station.
Citing "media terrorism," Chávez and his ministers have publicly accused Globovisión's directors of hatching assassination plots against the president, generating panic by covering an earthquake before state television issued an official report, and inciting Venezuelans to deadly violence. In an April address to Latin American diplomats in Washington, Andrés Izarra, a Venezuelan government official, likened Globovisión's coverage to Rwandan radio broadcasts that helped provoke genocide in 1994.
Ratcheting up efforts
Last week, police raided the home of Globovisión's president, Guillermo Zuloaga, and ordered the station to pay $2.3 million for giving free airtime to anti-government groups during a 2002 oil strike. The station faces three investigations into its coverage, which may lead to its closing. Officials at the United Nations and the Organization of American States have raised concerns about the government's measures, as have several press freedom groups.
"We think he's ratcheting up his efforts to stifle dissent," said Carlos Lauría, Americas program director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "Our concern is that this is a direct attack against free expression and that the actions of President Chávez, the actions by the Venezuelan government, are undermining democracy."
Though many of the print and radio media remain critical, officials appear determined to take Globovisión off the air in Caracas and Valencia, the two cities in which it broadcasts, or at least to marginalize it.
Two years ago, on the president's orders, officials declined to renew the broadcasting license of another stridently anti-government station, RCTV, forcing it onto cable, where viewership is limited. The government never leveled official sanctions against the station, nor was RCTV permitted to defend itself in hearings.
Globovisión's latest rift with Chávez began in May, after the station ran a brief report on a minor earthquake that included criticism of the government's failure to release information. Infuriated officials opened an investigation, saying the station's report had spread "terror" and senselessly alarmed Venezuelans.
Chávez, referring to Globovisión, said, "That has to end." State television has run ads calling the station "sick" and telling viewers to "turn off the illness." In a recent speech, Chávez ordered the attorney general, the president of the Supreme Court and the director of telecommunications to "fulfill your obligation" and take action in the case.
Chávez dismisses international criticism. "I do not care one iota what they say in the world," he said recently on "Alo, Presidente," his weekly television show.
At Globovisión, station director Alberto Federico Ravell is equally adamant. He calls Chávez a dictator and indirectly criticizes television broadcasters that have muted negative coverage of the government.
"Our editorial line is not for sale," he said. "We are not going to get out of the role of being journalists."
In an environment that free-speech advocates describe as openly hostile, Globovisión's reporters are often jostled in public and authorities limit their access to news conferences or ignore their queries.
Alejandro Gómez, a Globovisión cameraman, said he had recently found a good vantage point high above the notoriously violent Yare Prison, southeast of Caracas, to film a disturbance in the yard. "We had tremendous images," he said.
But National Guard troops, leveling rifles at him, forced him to erase the footage. "It was a condition for letting me go," he said.
The government has defended its actions by portraying Globovisión's directors as subversives who will stop at nothing to see Chávez ousted.
"The media terrorism in Venezuela is a permanent practice by a big part of the private media," Izarra said, adding that "messages of hate," some inserted subliminally, had been detected in e-mails and in entertainment programming.
Anger has roots in brief coup
The government's wrath against Globovisión has roots in a 2002 coup that briefly deposed Chávez. Globovisión and three other anti-government stations called for protests, gave free commercial airtime to anti-Chávez organizations and aired positive coverage of opposition leaders. The stations celebrated Chávez's ouster along with the coup leaders and then blacked out coverage of a counter-coup that put him back in power.
Seven years later, the government has yet to prosecute Globovisión's owners or editors. "It's clear there's a role the private media played in the coup," said Lauría, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "But there are no judicial sentences against them."
On a recent day, talk of the government's bid to silence the station was secondary at Globovisión as editors focused on the day's news, which included the Air France plane crash and the inauguration of El Salvador's new president.
Briceño, the reporter locked out of the news conference earlier in the day, appeared to take the incident in stride. At 26, she is already accustomed to such treatment. But she said she worries about the future.
"What is in play is whether we can freely practice journalism," she said. "There is free expression. You can say what you want. But it is a free expression that is supervised and limited -- and that has consequences."
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