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Newspaper barred from printing violent photos; president sees "little bird"

Nicolás Maduro celebrates his narrow election as Venezuelan president in a vote held in April this year. Maduro's critics say he is behind recent court rulings affecting opposition media. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images.)

Venezuela’s main opposition newspaper – El Nacional – has an unusual new feature on its website.

The paper’s familiar two-word banner continues to top the page, in white on a blue background, but now it looks as if someone has stamped the nameplate with the word “censurado” in bright red lettering inside a bold red rectangle.

In English, that means “censored,” and it’s a protest by the newspaper’s publisher against a recent Venezuelan court order that prohibits the paper from reproducing any photographs or other images “containing violence, firearms, physical aggression, or bloody and nude corpses.”

The court also hit the publication with a fine equivalent to 1 per cent of the paper’s gross earnings in 2009 as punishment for having printed a photograph in 2010 that showed a group of cadavers piled up in the main Caracas morgue. The picture was meant to illustrate an article about worsening crime-related problems in the country.

Those problems are severe. The murder rate in Venezuela – population: almost 30 million – is currently estimated at nearly 60 homicides for every 100,000 people, making the South American country one of the most violent territories on earth. The corresponding figure for Canada is 1.6 homicides for every 100,000 population.

Public opinion polls consistently identify criminality as the Number One concern for most Venezuelans.

El Nacional has long been one of the fiercest critics of the oil-rich country’s populist government, now led by Nicolás Maduro, who earlier this year replaced the outspoken and boisterous Hugo Chávez, after he succumbed to cancer following 14 years in power.

Maduro’s opponents regard the court ruling against El Nacional, as well as several other recent judicial orders affecting opposition media and politicians, as part of an attempt by the government to subdue its critics.

Whether those charges are true or false, there can be little doubt of Maduro’s allegiance to the late president, who is still revered by huge numbers of Venezuelans. In recent public comments, Maduro confessed that he sometimes repairs to the Military History Museum in Caracas in order to sleep alongside Chávez’s mortal remains. According to Latin TV channel NTN24, the president also said that, every time he speaks about Chávez, a little bird appears.

“Here comes a bird crossing the rainbow,” he is supposed to have said. “They say it’s a lie, but what blame do I have? I talk about Chávez, and the little bird appears. Look, there’s another one, a little playmate.”

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.


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