Lawsuits looming over publication of fake photo of Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela, Wednesday January 30, 2013 – Venezuela’s government has vowed to take legal action despite an apology from Spain’s influential El Pais newspaper for splashing a “false photo” of Venezuela’s cancer-stricken leader Hugo Chavez on the front page of its Thursday edition.

Caracas said that the publication of the picture, which depicted the bald head of an apparently unconscious man lying down with a breathing tube in his mouth, was “grotesque,” while Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez, a close ally of Chavez, called it “vile”.

The Venezuelan government described El Pais’s publication of the picture, said to be a screenclip from an unrelated 2008 video, as part of efforts by far-right political forces to attack Chavez’s revolution.

It said that the newspaper’s apology was not enough, and appropriate legal action would be taken.

“Neither their disgusting photos nor their systematic campaigns will stop the president’s advance,” Information Minister Ernesto Villegas insisted at a Caracas news conference.

“Would El Pais publish a similar photo of a European leader? Of its director? Sensationalism is valid if the victim is a revolutionary ‘sudaca’,” Villegas added, referring to a derogatory term sometimes used in Spain in reference to Latin Americans.

For its part, El Pais said it had discovered from social media that the photo was not of Chavez within minutes of posting the image online. It accordingly removed it from its website and withdrew its print edition.

“El Pais apologises to its readers for the damage caused. The newspaper has opened an investigation to determine the circumstances of what happened and the errors that were committed in the verification of the photo,” the paper said.

One of the world’s biggest Spanish-language publications and an institution both in Spain and in Latin America, El Pais said it had received the grainy image from the Gtres Online agency, which it said represents 60 other agencies in Spain.

El Pais said in a statement that the newspaper was told it had been taken seven days earlier by a Cuban nurse who was part of Chavez’s medical team, and was then sent to the nurse’s sister, who lives in Spain.

“The agency has acknowledged it was deceived by those who provided the material and will take legal action,” El Pais said.

The offending photograph was posted on the newspaper’s website for about half an hour and also took the front page of early editions of the print version, which were then removed from newsstands and replaced with another edition with a different front page.

In Venezuela, meanwhile anxious Chavez supporters and opponents alike are waiting for any new picture, video or audio message from the ailing socialist leader.

While officials say the president’s condition is improving after he suffered multiple complications, including unexpected bleeding and a severe respiratory problem following the December 11 surgery, no visual evidence of his reported progress has been published.

In the absence of such confirmation, many Venezuelans are questioning the official bulletins and have been left wondering if Chavez’s 14 years in power may be coming to an end.

The Venezuelan opposition has long accused the government of secrecy over his illness, while supporters accuse “bourgeois” local and foreign media of siding with the opposition to spread rumours that he is at death’s door. (CMC) Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)