January 25, 2013 7:33 pm

Venezuela to sue Spanish newspaper

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Venezuela will sue the Spanish newspaper El País after it published a false photograph of President Hugo Chávez on its front page on Thursday, amid growing uncertainty about the condition of the Opec nation’s leader.

Ernesto Villegas, information minister, said the government would take the “necessary” legal action after the “meagre” apology issued by El País, describing the image of a shaven-headed man on a hospital bed with tubes wedged into his mouth as “grotesque”.

“It violated all the codes of ethical journalism,” said Mr Villegas, who was previously the editor of a state-financed newspaper. He said there was an international conspiracy to vilify Venezuela’s socialist government.

With Mr Chávez’s health treated as a state secret, his exact condition remains unknown and rumours are running wild in Venezuela, given that the president has not been seen or heard from since he arrived in Cuba for his fourth cancer operation on December 11.

The government says Mr Chávez is recovering, but that it wants to avoid raising expectations by fixing a date for his return. Nevertheless, Mr Villegas said he should be back within “weeks”.

In Mr Chavez’s absence, his handpicked successor Nicolas Maduro is expected in Santiago, Chile this weekend, where he will make his first international appearance as Venezuela’s acting president at a summit between the Community of Latin American and Caribbean states, a 33-country regional grouping, and the EU. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, will be among the EU representatives.

Elías Jaua, foreign minister, said on Thursday night on his return from a trip to Cuba to see Mr Chávez that he was “fully conscious and took decisions”. “However the most complex and the most profound battle against his illness still lies ahead,” he said.

The move against El País comes shortly after Human Rights Watch, a US-based human rights group that has been consistently critical of Mr Chávez’s 14-year administration, urged the government earlier this month to end the censorship and intimidation of media that challenge the official line on the president’s health.

Human Rights Watch was reacting to a recent crackdown by the government after it ordered a television station to stop airing spots questioning its interpretation of the constitution, following its dismissal of the importance of Mr Chávez’s failure to attend the inauguration of his new presidential term on January 10th. It also criticised the raid by intelligence agents of a controversial blogger’s home, and the confiscation of his computers, after being accused of “instigating terrorism on social networks”.

Amid increasing speculation that Mr Chávez may soon be forced to step down from power, there were further signs that Mr Maduro could lead a government just as radical as Venezuela’s firebrand leader when he warned opponents from destabilising the “fatherland”.

The former trade unionist said on Wednesday that unidentified conspirators were planning to assassinate him and the head of congress, Diosdado Cabello, without providing proof of his claims.

“Don’t be surprised by actions that are taken in the coming hours and days. Criminals infiltrating our country can’t ask for mercy,” said Mr Maduro at a rally celebrating the downfall of a dictatorship 55 years ago. “Anyone who violates the constitution and this country’s peace needs to be jailed. We will apply a strong hand against the rightwing’s conspiracy.”

Also offering little proof, during his time in power Mr Chávez has frequently warned of “magnicide” engineered by opponents that he calls “lackeys of the [US] empire”.

Indeed, poor relations between Venezuela and the US also show few signs of improving, after Mr Jaua seized on comments by Senator John Kerry, the nominee for US secretary of state, that depending on what happens in Venezuela, there could be an opportunity for a transition.

“We greatly regret that the person who is sure to be the next secretary of state but has not even started the job has already begun to take sides and express opinions on internal matters of Venezuela,” said Mr Jaua. “We hope that he will rectify this attitude and that we have what we all want, which is a friendly relationship.”

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