Chavez closes “threatening” TV station

By Christopher Gehrke

Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, South America

Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Venezuela’s oldest television station, was taken off the air May 27th after 53 years of broadcasting. The decision not to renew RCTV’s lease was made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who said that RCTV “became a threat to the country” and that he had a “responsibility” to shut it down.  RCTV’s news programs regularly disparage President Chavez’s socialist-leaning transformation of Venezuelan government. Chavez defended his decision by claiming that the station supported a coup against him in 2002. The station will be replaced by the state-sponsored Venezuelan Social TV (TVES). The other two national stations, Venevision and Televen, have already removed all content critical of the government from their programming.


RCTV supporters say that Chavez is stomping on freedom of expression by silencing a channel that is often critical. José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch agrees, and stated that Chavez is “misusing the state’s regulatory authority to punish a media outlet for its criticism of the government.” Gonzalo Marroquín, the president of the Inter-American Press Association said in a statement that Chavez’s decision was intended to “standardize the right to information, and results in a very bleak outlook for the whole hemisphere.” The U.S. Senate and E.U. Parliament also criticized RCTV’s closure.

The government argues that the station violated broadcast laws and transmitted violent and morally degrading programs. The government’s “White Book on RCTV”, which details the allegations made against the station, accuses RCTV of “inciting rebellion,” showing a “lack of respect for authorities and institutions,” as well. Human Rights Watch points out that the White Book does not present any final judicial or administrative rulings that establish that RCTV had committed any of these offenses, nor was the criteria on which this decision was based available beforehand.


Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday, some celebrating the decision, some protesting it. Police claimed that shots were fired in their direction and that 11 officers were injured by protesters hurling rocks. A protest rally made their way to the headquarters of the broadcasting regulator to voice their disapproval. The crowd was dispersed by police wielding tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets.

For more information, see:

“Venezuela police repel protests over TV network’s closing” NY Times: (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela Shuts Down TV Network” NY Times: (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela: TV Shutdown Harms Freedom of Expression” Human Rights Watch: 28 May 2007.

“Rallies as Venezuelan TV closes” BBC News: 28 May 2007.

“TV row widens Venezuela’s rift” BBC News: 28 May 2007.

Pope makes first visit to Brazil, angers Indians

Pope Benedict made his first visit to Brazil convening a 19 day conference of Latin American Bishops. Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world and is also a country where there is a clear challenge to the church. In his speeches, Pope Benedict warned against moving away from Catholic values and suggested that those values are the answer to present social and economic issues.  He blamed the gap between the rich and the poor on Marxism and capitalism in the region as well as the growth of Protestantism. The Pope drew a lower turnout then expected, reflecting the decreasing influence of the Catholic Church as well as the weaker appeal of this Pope in comparison to Pope John Paul II.

In response to the Pope’s visit and statements, Indian leaders stated they were outraged and offended by the Pope’s “arrogant and disrespectful” comments regarding the imposition of the Church on the indigenous people. Pope Benedict said that the indigenous people welcomed the arrival of European Priests and were “silently longing” for Christianity. However, millions of Indians died from slaughter, disease or enslavement as a result of the European colonization supported by the Catholic Church. Today, Indians still struggle for survival as they have been deprived of their traditional ways of life.

Brazil is home to over 450,000 Indians who mostly inhabit small reserves with few opportunities to make a living.  Many Indian groups sent an open letter to the Pope asking for support in defending their ancestral lands against the government as they have suffered a “process of genocide” since the first colonization began. The letter stated that the assassination of Indian leaders was still occurring from people who invaded their lands. Jecinald Satere Mawe, of the Amazon Indian group Coiab, stated that it was arrogant and disrespectful of the Pope to “consider our cultural heritage secondary to theirs.” In addition to Indian groups being outraged, the Pope also angered Catholic priests who have joined the struggle of the Indians. Sandro Tuxa, who heads northeastern tribal movement, stated that the Pope had been poorly advised and that his statements were offensive and frightening. Cimi, Catholic Churches own Indian advocacy group in Brazil distanced itself from the Pope after his comments.

For more information see:

Ecuador’s Removal of Lawmakers

Provincial Judge, Juan Ramirez, was fired after he blocked the Electoral Tribunal from unseating 57 legislators in Ecuador. The tribunal fired Ramirez, saying the removal was justified because Ramirez acted illegally when blocking the Tribunal’s actions. The 57 fired lawmakers were opposing a referendum on a constitutional change that was supported by President Rafael Correa. The change would send a referendum to the people seeking approval for a national assembly to look at constitutional reform and potentially rewrite the Constitution. The Supreme Electoral Court announced that the referendum would proceed. The legislature then replaced the president of the court. The court came back and fired 57 lawmakers out of the 100 member assembly.

Following the removal of the lawmakers, the Constitutional Court found that the firings were unconstitutional and ordered them to be reinstated.  On the following day all nine judges of the Constitutional Court were removed by Congress who stated that the judges terms had meant to expire in January 2007. However, the judges have a four year term under the constitution and were appointed in February of 2006. President Correa insisted that the lawmakers did not deserve their jobs back and condemned the Supreme Court ruling to reinstate the lawmakers as a violation of legal procedures.

Human Rights Watch said that these actions have undermined the country’s democratic institutions and that disagreement between factions cannot justify the removal of judges. Such actions are a gross interference with the autonomy of another branch of government continued Human Rights Watch. There is a trend of Ecuadorian officials resolving political differences by removing their opponents rather then through other, more democratic, means. The democratic institutions in Ecuador have been in crisis for years as presidents have been removed before completing their terms and Congress has fired and replaced Supreme Court judges.

For more information:

Colombian port city is home to corruption, death, and the impoverished

Buenaventura, a Colombian port city with a population of about 300,000, has emerged as one of the poorest and most dangerous urban centers in South America.

Buenaventura is an important port for both legitimate business and the cocaine trade. In 2005, one-third of all cocaine captured along the Pacific coast was captured in and around Buenaventura. Corruption plagues Buenaventura, even prompting President Alvaro Uribe to demand the arrest of the city’s top security official for taking bribes in 2006.

Cocaine dealers and traffickers combine forces with rebel groups and demobilized paramilitary veterans to fight the overwhelmed 2,000 soldiers and police officers that patrol the area. Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) knocked out the city’s power with a grenade attack a year ago last Friday. These groups control the slums, where young people are recruited to be foot soldiers, informers, or hit men. Killings in this city rose by 30 percent in 2006, giving Buenaventura Colombia’s highest homicide rate (144 per 100,000). This is seven times the rate in Bogotá, the nation’s capital, and twenty-four times the rate of New York City. Two-hundred and forty-four people have been killed so far this year.

Homes here are made of cinderblocks and discarded wood. Fresh water is obtained from rusty barrels that collect drops from metal roofs. The unemployment rate is 28 percent, forcing many to turn to the cocaine trade. The city has a large refugee population: over 42,000 people, mostly Afro-Colombians, have arrived since 1998. Some nongovernmental groups say that Afro-Colombians make up a quarter of the Colombian population. Over 80 percent of Buenaventura’s residents are black, and live on less than three dollars a day. Critics say that authorities have neglected Buenaventura’s problems because Afro-Colombians do not receive sufficient federal attention.

For more info, see:

“Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City” New York Times: 22 May 2007

“Colombia Port City Is Battleground” Washington Post: 28 December 2006

“Colombia City Power Grid Attacked” BBC News: 20 May 2006.

Homemade Bomb Kills Six in Juliaca, Peru

A bomb made of dynamite and nails concealed in a backpack exploded in a market in Juliaca, Peru on Friday, May 18th. The blast occurred around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. local time, officials say. The blast killed 6 and wounded 48 attending a 40 year anniversary celebration. Juliaca is just over 500 miles south of Lima, Peru’s capital, near the Bolivian border.

Officials have made contradictory statements: one claimed it was merely fireworks for the celebration, but local police have stated that they have not ruled out a terrorist attack.

The influence of Peru’s rebel group, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) has decreased in recent years. Sendero Luminoso was responsible for massacres, bombings, and assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s. Their leader, Abimael Guzman is serving a life sentence after being captured in 1992. It is worth noting, however, that this terrorist group made their first armed attack almost to the day over 27 years ago, when it burned ballot boxes before a presidential election on May 17th, 1980.

“Homemade Bomb Kills 6, Wounds 48 in Peru” New York Times: 19 May 2007.

“Homemade Bomb Kills 6 during celebration in Peru” 19 May 2007.

“Blast kills 6 in southern Peru” BBC News: 20 May 2007.