CARACAS -- The dynamics of authoritarian governments do not change. As the Venezuelan government keeps on suppressing the right of the people to protest against repression, the scarcity of products and the rise in crime, the onslaught against the few remaining independent media in the country increases. Now, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello has launched a fierce offensive against the newspaper Tal Cual, its owner and editor in chief Teodoro Petkoff, an external columnist and Petkoff's partners in the newspaper.
They stand accused of aggravated libel because of a column Carlos Genatios, a former minister of sciences in one of Hugo Chávez' cabinets, in which he quoted Cabello, saying to a group of citizens complaining about the rising crime, "if you don't like the insecurity, go away." Cabello denied having said it and sued the paper. A Caracas judge has admitted the criminal suit and if found guilty, the accused could be sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay exorbitant fines.
I asked former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro, what can be done to prevent the abuse against Teodoro and Tal Cual? "It's another facet of an authoritarian regime. You use the institutions of what had been a democratic system against your opponents: Bring a lawsuit. Defense lawyers will defend. A judge will rule. But of course it will be a show trial in which the decision is foreordained because the courts are not independent," says Shapiro.
Never, in the checkered history of Venezuelan journalism has a newspaper been held responsible for the opinion of an external columnist. I am also a contributor to Tal Cual and now I wonder if I should ask my editor Teodoro, to publish this column. I am not afraid the Venezuelan government may take a legal action against me, an independent journalist who resides abroad, but would my column create more problems for the paper? Will my column offer them a new excuse to prosecute my friend Teodoro? Worse. If I write an opinion should I try to be impartial in a conflict in which those who take to the streets to protest are killed because the president feels his authority, both real and moral, is diminished? Should my columns recommend submission and resignation to a government that thinks it knows what is good for the people and intimidates and imprisons its citizens? Should I believe there could be a meaningful dialogue with a state that is the main violator of the rule of law?
According to the report of the Venezuelan Press National Union, 89 journalists have been attacked or arrested by the police or the paramilitary government sponsored brigades, since the protests began about a month ago. Deivis Ramirez, reporter for El Universal of Caracas has been called to testify before the judicial police because his report on the number of dead protesters does not match the official figures. The reporters of the newspaper El Carabobeño are constantly being threatened and attacked by the National Guard.
"Today Venezuela is seriously endangering the freedom of the press and expression and respect for human rights," Colombia's former president Cesar Gaviria told me. "Killing people for political reasons does not belong in the democratic tradition of the sister republic. I call upon the international community to do more to create mechanisms to facilitate a dialogue before democratic values and the right to life of all Venezuelans suffers further losses."
After listening to Gaviria, I read the Joint Declaration of four former presidents, Costa Rican Oscar Arias, Brazilian Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Chilean Ricardo Lagos and Peru's Alejandro Toledo condemning the repression and demanding the "immediate end to the persecution of students and opposition leaders, including the release of Mr. Leopoldo López," the protest leader. They also call on the international community to join in a concerted effort to strengthen democracy and the preservation of peace in Venezuela. What a contrast with the abject statement by the group of 12 South American nations called UNASUR supporting Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in its repression. And, sadly, I see how Mexico becomes an accomplice to the crime by keeping silent under the cover of the principle of non-intervention.
I can't remain silent. I must heed Teodoro's advice and let Maduro and Cabello know they will never silence us. The day he learned he was being sued, Teodoro published an editorial in the front page promising "No nos callarán!" "We will not be silenced." I and the staff of Tal Cual will stand together.