Venezuela will sue Spanish newspaper for fake Chávez photo, minister says

By Alejandro Martínez

The Venezuelan government will sue newspaper El País – Spain’s largest newspaper – for the fake photo of President Hugo Chávez that it published last week, said Minister of Communication and Information Ernesto Villegas in an interview Sunday with public broadcaster TeleSUR.

“The Venezuelan government must take legal action against this paper with all the judicial tools at its disposal, not just to repair the moral damage caused, but also to set a precedent.  Enough with this shameless journalism,” said Villegas.

On the early morning of Jan. 24, on its website and the front page of its print edition, El País published a photo that supposedly showed Chávez with tubes in his mouth in an operating room.  The image would have been the first since Chávez went in for surgery on Dec. 11 in Havana after new complications arose in his fight against cancer.

But the image was a screenshot of a YouTube video uploaded in 2008 and the patient shown in the video was not Chávez.  On realizing the error, the paper pulled the image from its website, halted the distribution of its print version, and printed a revised edition.  The paper published an apology on its website and published a note with details of the error this Sunday.

In his interview with TeleSUR, Villegas dismissed the paper’s explanations and called them part of a “systematic chain” of attacks against the Chávez government.  In another interview on Jan. 27, Villegas said that the paper owed an apology not just to its readers, “but also to President Chávez himself and the Venezuelan people.”

In the last few days El País has been criticized by many commentators in the media and on social networks.  Last week, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner attacked the paper and other media organizations on her Twitter account for publishing the photo.

However, the controversy has underlined the uncertainty and speculation that has arisen due to the lack of official information on Chávez’s health.  Based on its records on freedom of information in Venezuela, the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) produced a report on the government’s stance regarding the health of the president. IPYS said officials have not been transparent and has had “an aggressive attitude towards the national and foreign press.”

Meanwhile, Villegas said that the government will release a real photo of Chávez when the circumstances require it, reported the website Perú 21.  Villegas added that Chávez approves of the way his staff has handled information regarding his health and that he has given precise instructions on the matter, said the website.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.