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Chavez is dead; his attacks on democracy live on

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Hugo Chavez may be dead, but the offensive he led against democratic institutions in Venezuela and across Latin America has not slackened. In fact, it may be accelerating, especially with regard to independent media.

Last week, the beleaguered owner of the last Venezuelan television station not subservient to the government announced he was selling his shares to a businessman close to the ruling party. Guillermo Zuloaga, the majority owner of the Globovision network, was forced into exile in the United States in 2010 by the Chavez regime; now his network faces financial ruin because of repeated, multimillion-dollar fines levied on its news coverage. "We are in a completely polarized country on the opposite end of an all-powerful government that wants to see us fail," Zuloaga explained.

The silencing of Globovision will leave Venezuela with nine television networks, including five that are state owned and broadcast nearly incessant government propaganda the four privately-owned channels won’t dare to challenge. The story of Globovision explains why. The network was charged with "sowing panic" for reporting on an earthquake, fined $2.2 million for its coverage of a bloody prison riot and, most recently, accused again of spreading panic for questioning whether the delay of Chavez’s presidential inauguration during his final illness violated the constitution — which it clearly did.

The assault on the free press is by no means limited to Venezuela. In Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner also has been trying to silence critical media, including leading newspapers such as La Nacin, Clarn and Perfil. Last month, her commerce minister ordered private supermarkets and appliance retailers, including Wal-Mart and Carrefour, to stop their media advertising for two months.

The measure was nominally intended to complement a government price freeze, but the biggest victims were the three newspapers, which are known throughout Latin America for their hard-hitting reporting and professionalism. Clarn’s advertising from these private firms fell from 264 pages in January to 61 in February, while the other papers lost 15 to 20 per cent of their income. The government long ago withdrew all of its own advertising from the papers; its intent is to force them to adopt the self-censorship that has already overtaken most Argentine media.

The pressure on free press is one reason why the most valuable institution of the Organization of American States is its independent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its rapporteur on press freedom. The rapporteur’s office has been fearless in reporting on abuses of media freedom by governments in the Western hemisphere, while the commission has issued protective orders to shield threatened journalists.

Now, however, the commission and rapporteur are themselves under assault. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who aspires to replace Chavez at the head of the region’s anti-democratic left, has been campaigning to defund the rapporteur’s office, limit the commission’s authority and move its headquarters out of Washington. He has announced he will attend an OAS foreign ministers meeting next Friday to press his case. Governments that vote with Correa will essentially be sanctioning the suppression of independent media across the region; those that are democracies must stand up for free speech.

— The Washington Post

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