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Media outlets fear for journo safety and tighter gov’t controls in wake of Chavez’s death

The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday heightened concerns about the safety of reporters from media outlets that have been critical of the regime. Observers said it’s unlikely that Chavez’s hand-picked successors will loosen the government’s iron grip on the nation’s radio and TV landscape anytime soon.

It’s expected that Vice President Nicolas Maduro or National Assembly prexy Diosdado Cabello will take over from the strongman who had ruled Venezuela since 1999.

The government has deployed the armed forces and asked Chavez supporters to fill the streets and plazas to pray for the president, who died of cancer at 58. With fervent Chavistas rallying to the call, “my immediate concern is the safety of the reporters from Globovision and other media that have been critical of Chavez,” said Russ Dallen, publisher of the Latin America Herald Tribune.

The Chavez regime exerted control over broadcasters by seizing assets and revoking the broadcasting licenses of the long-established RCTV and dozens of radio stations for alleged regulatory infractions, effectively shutting them down.

Newspapers El Universal and Nacional have retained their independence despite government pressure.

The president’s death follows weeks of speculation about his health and unfounded reports of his demise.

Protesters spilled out onto the streets of Caracas last weekend demanding the truth about Chavez’s health after a report from CNN Chile had Guillermo Cochez, the former Panamanian ambassador to the Organization of American States, claiming that the cancer-stricken Chavez had been brain dead since Dec. 31.

The report was locally disseminated on print and social media, spreading like wildfire on Twitter, where Venezuela ranks 13th in the world by number of accounts.

Local radio and TV stations dared not repeat the news for fear that they would be charged with “inciting rebellion,” as per Venezuela’s media law.

However, they did cover the protests, prompting the government to accuse them of fomenting unrest and warning that it would not stop Chavez supporters from retaliating, referring to past instances when pro-Chavez thugs attacked the offices of opposition-leaning news network, Globovision.

Long the subject of government pressure, Globovision has been shut out of the country’s transition to digital broadcasting. While most of the media in Venezuela tamed their stance on Chavez to preserve their licenses, Globovision remained the last bastion of opposition on the airwaves, reaching some 2.5 million via cable and satellite platforms.

Last year, Globovision paid a $2 million fine amid accusations by media regulators of distorting and reporting false news coverage of a prison riot.

Chavez was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. He underwent a fourth round of surgery in Cuba in December, and returned to Caracas last month to allegedly continue a “more intense” treatment phase.

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