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more about the morgue photo

August 24, 2010

I’ve been on the road and only just had a chance to catch up on the news. The case of the Caracas morgue photo, which I discussed previously, is still hot. To recap, one of Venezuela’s most prominent national daily newspapers ran an article on Friday, August 13 regarding the government’s role in the sharp and decade long rise of violent crime. Accompanying the article was a photo from Caracas’ Bello Monte morgue which displayed eleven partially naked corpses. Citizens – reportedly a pro-Chavez student group – complained to the Ministry of Public Affairs, which opened an investigation meant to determine whether the photo violated Venezuela’s Fundamental Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (Ley Orgánica de Protección del Niño, Niña y Adolescente / Lopna). Members of the opposition and some journalists decried the investigation as a repression of free speech.

Now, the update: On Tuesday the 17th, Judge William Páez of Venezuela’s 12th Court for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (Tribuna 12 de Primera Instancia en Sustanciación y Mediación de Protección al Niño y Adolescente) ordered all newspapers to refrain from publishing violent photos for a period of 30 days. On Friday, however, the same judge retracted the order for all but two newspapers, El Nacional, which originally published the photo, and Tal Cual, which ran the same photo on Monday the 16th in order to protest the initial investigation.

As I stated before, the government needs to pick its battles with greater care. It’s true that the article and photo are clearly politicized and probably designed to drum up support for the opposition. Miguel Otero, editor of El Nacional, made this clear when he told CNN en español that “[t]he editorial reasoning behind the photo was to create a shock so that people could in some way react to a situation that the government has done absolutely nothing about.” Moreover, according to Tamara Pearson at venezuelaanalysis.com, Otero “admitted the image was taken ‘unauthorized’ last December … and said he ‘held off from publishing it because of its graphic content’ until the ‘right moment’. That moment appears to have been the run-up to crucial parliamentary elections in September. (Note: Some outlets are reporting that the photo is from 2006, not 2009.) Otero is clearly using his paper as a political tool. Ideally, these motives should play no role in the government’s decision to investigate. In actuality, they should make the government even more cautious, since it knows all-too-well that any investigation of an opposition media outlet will generate the free press firestorm we are now experiencing. It’s hard to see how the social benefits of this isolated investigation will outweigh the damage (deserved or not) to the government’s democratic credentials.

It’s unclear whether the 12th Court’s ruling was specifically sought by government lawyers, or if the judge, on his own rationale, felt it to be necessary. (The WSJ classifies the 12th court as “Chávez-controlled” – implying that the judge acted neither on his own nor in response to a valid legal solicitation, but rather to the whims of Chávez himself. The article, however, offers no evidence to back this up.) Whatever the motivation, it wasn’t only the opposition that reacted negatively. Eva Golinger reports that Alberto Nolia, the host of a program on state television, called the photo ban “absurd”. He went on to say that ““children are not stupid, they know what’s going on. Perhaps it would be better to publish images of people killed by violent crime with explanations about who they were and the fact that now their lives are over, so that kids will understand the severity of delinquency”. Meanwhile, Eleazar Díaz Rangel, editor of Últimas Noticias – probably the most important non-State newspaper considered to be generally favorable to the government – issued a scathing editorial in which he wrote that “(f)or the first time since 1999 the Venezuelan state is providing reasons to think that it restricts the freedom to be informed.” (“Por primera vez desde 1999 el Estado venezolano da motivos a que se le señale como restrictivo de la libertad de informar.“)

Not only did the government discredit itself, it also fanned the flames surrounding the issue of violence in Venezuela. Spain’s El Pais included this statement in its report: “”For the Venezuelan Government, the publication of news about criminality constitues a security and public health problem as or more serious than street violence…” (“Para el Gobierno de Venezuela, la publicación de noticias sobre criminalidad constituye un problema de seguridad y salud pública tanto o más grave que la violencia callejera…“) Meanwhile, Simon Romero, at the NY Times, wrote an article in which he unfavorably compares the levels of violence in Venezuela to those in Iraq. El Nacional then wrote up a story about the Times piece, and Venezuela’s US ambassador, Bernardo Álvarez, felt compelled to respond to Romero’s article with a letter, published in Últimas Noticias, in which he claims that Romero underestimated the State’s resources to control violent crime. If the government meant to prevent the opposition from turning the issue of violence into a major theme of the September elections, then it has failed miserably.

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