CARACAS (Reuters) - A Venezuelan court has ordered two opposition newspapers not to print violent images and asked the rest to follow suit, in a move that it said was to protect children but which critics denounced as censorship.
The ruling followed a scandal over the publication of a photograph of corpses piled at a morgue in Caracas, which the government says was part of campaign against President Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party ahead of September 26 legislative polls.
The picture was splashed on the front page of El Nacional newspaper last Friday under a headline about growing insecurity in the South American country.
The city morgue receives many people killed by violence or in traffic accidents. The newspapers used the image to show the institution was overwhelmed by the number of bodies.
On Wednesday, El Nacional printed a front page without photos, emblazoned with the word “Censored.”
“(The print media) should abstain from publishing violent, bloody or grotesque images, whether of crime or not, that in one way or another threaten the moral and psychological state of children,” the 12th Tribunal of Caracas said in the ruling late on Tuesday.
The director of El Nacional, Miguel Henrique Otero, has defended his paper’s decision to publish the image, which it says was taken by one of its photographers last December.
He told CNN the government had adopted “a very aggressive position because the picture had a very big political impact given the disproportionate growth of crime” in Venezuela.
“The editorial aim of the photo was to shock people so that in some way they react to the situation, since the government does nothing,” Otero said.
Later on Wednesday, El Nacional said personnel from the CICPC national investigative police unit visited its offices to check the data on the camera used to take the photograph.
Some government officials have disputed when the morgue photo was shot, and say conditions at the Bello Monte facility have greatly improved since it was taken.
Venezuela has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates, with more than 16,000 murders last year according to calculations by non-governmental groups. The government has not published official murder figures for several years.
Venezuela’s Public Defender Gabriela del Mar Ramirez Perez denied the court order was an attack on the press.
The right to freedom of speech was not absolute, she said in a statement, but entailed duties and responsibilities and could be subject to restrictions under the law.
“We reaffirm that the exercise of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and information, or the development of actions to promote electoral trends ... in no case justify violating the rights of children and adolescents,” she said.
Lawlessness ranks as the top concern of voters, and opposition parties are expected to campaign on an anti-crime ticket ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections.
Chavez’s Socialist Party is likely to retain a reduced majority at the polls, seen as a barometer of support for the government’s policies ahead of presidential elections in 2012, when Chavez will seek another term.
International press watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the morgue photograph was shocking and that its use raised questions about the newspaper’s “sense of responsibility,” even if it was not a publication aimed at young people.
“But this court order is much too broad and imprecise,” the group said in a statement.
“What are the exact criteria for deciding if something affects the psychological well-being of children or adolescents? Would the photo of an armed policeman in the street, a soldier on maneuvers or a death notice be in breach of this order?”
Reporting by Caracas Newsroom; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Philip Barbara