Economic woes test Venezuela's commitment to press freedom. Changing oil fortunes puts government at odds with critics

The collapse in world oil prices has put a strain on press freedoms in democratic, oil-dependent Venezuela. Falling oil earnings have eroded hopes that President Jaime Lusinchi can move the nation out of recession, and the deepening economic crisis threatens to turn into a political one for the administration. An extra-sensitive government has responded by cracking down on its critics in the news media.

Since taking office 2 years ago, the Lusinchi administration has carried out 87 attacks on press freedoms, according to the Inter-American Press Society. It cites such incidents as the jailing of a prominent Caracas editor, cancellation of radio programs and a controversial television talk show, and pressure on newspaper editors to soften government criticism. Delegates to the press society's annual meeting last month approved a resolution urging the government to abandon its ``growing intolerance.''

Although suppressing the press may be routine under some Latin American regimes, Venezuela's 28-year-old democracy takes pride in its civil liberties, and the government strongly rejected the press society's allegations. ``In Venezuela, liberty of expression is an undeniable fact,'' the government said in a statement.

The government noted that the author of the report on which the resolution was based was Miguel Otero, co-owner of the liberal Caracas daily El Nacional. Otero is an opposition congressman for the center-right Christian Social Party, and thus he has an interest in making the Democratic Action Party government look bad, the government suggested.

With unemployment rising and economic growth continuing to decline for the eighth straight year, Lusinchi has become increasingly thin-skinned about criticism. Since May 1, the government has prohibited officials from speaking to reporters without authorization from a Cabinet member. When petroleum prices fell by 50 percent, the nation's energy minister, Arturo Hern'andez, decided to withhold announcements of further cuts in the price of Venezuelan oil so as not to ``confuse public opinion,'' as he put it.

The government fears further political fallout from the economic situation on Lusinchi's Democratic Action Party (AD). A recent poll showed that support for AD has dropped from 42 percent to 23 percent in two years.

Reporters on major Caracas newspapers say privately that officials now regularly pressure editors to tone down articles critical of government economic policies.

Venezuela's state-controlled economy gives the government a number of weapons to use against news media. Radio and television licenses can be revoked, and import permits for newsprint can be delayed or denied. Publishers see dangers in the administration's plan to build a state-owned newsprint factory. The issue has been a bone of contention for several months.

Another simmering controversy has been the jailing of Rodolfo Schmidt, the editor of El Diario, a moderately conservative Caracas daily. Mr. Schmidt was jailed twice in four months on libel charges that he says were trumped up as a warning to other journalists. Legal experts say that Venezuela's judiciary is highly politicized. The charges in both libel cases were subsequently dropped after Schmidt had spent more than two months in jail.

Just before Schmidt was jailed for the first time in April, El Diario was in the midst of an editorial campaign against the payment of foreign debts that it claims were acquired unconstitutionally. Critics of the administration's repayment plans have argued that, under previous governments, public agencies (with the knowledge of bankers) acquired some foreign debts without getting the necessary approval of the national congress.

El Diario had taken a sharp stand against the government's plan to repay $21.2 billion in foreign debt, even though income on which the nation depends is expected to drop by 40 percent this year.

``It's easier [for the government] to put a journalist in jail,'' Schmidt said, ``than to take a political position vis-`a-vis the debt crisis -- what part we're going to pay, what part we're going to discuss, and what part we're not going to pay because of its illegality.''

El Diario has since dropped the debt issue, and former El Diario executive Marcel Granier, a leading critic of the government's debt repayment scheme, has left the newspaper and canceled his television talk show. Two El Diario columnists critical of the government were asked to leave. One of them, independent leftist Jos'e Vicente, said El Diario acted only after the Lusinchi administration had exerted ``political, economic and personal'' pressure against the financial group that owns the newspaper.

``The democracy of liberty is threatened by the democracy of silence,'' said Vicente.

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