CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- When the Organization of American States asked its press freedom expert, Santiago Canton, to report on the state of the independent press in Venezuela, they must have known it was a sensitive mission.
President Hugo Chavez's radical populist government does not take kindly to criticism nor does it appreciate outside scrutiny of its internal affairs.
It's doubtful, though, that anyone at the OAS expected Canton to fall victim himself to the kind of tactics the Venezuelan press faces every day.
Just moments after beginning the final press conference of his four-day visit to Caracas on Friday, Canton was interrupted by pro-government demonstrators chanting, "Tell the truth."
Several journalists were assaulted in the subsequent confusion and a cameraman with Globovision television station was injured. Canton was unable to finish reading his communiqué and was escorted out.
If nothing else, the events served to confirm what editors, journalists and TV crews have been telling Canton for the last four days: that although there is freedom of speech in Venezuela, there is precious little protection for those who choose to exercise that right.
The Venezuelan journalists interviewed by Canton told him they regularly experience widespread hostility from government supporters, Canton said.
"The incidents I have heard about include threats, physical attacks, loss of professional status," Canton said. "Journalists are also frightened to identify themselves when they cover some official events for fear of reprisals."
Last week, unknown assailants planted a bomb outside the offices of the independent newspaper Asi es la Noticia, which damaged the building without causing injuries.
The newspaper had the previous day published details of a video showing members of the Venezuelan Air Force with a Colombian rebel group. The three reporters who broke the story, which seriously embarrassed the Chavez government, have also received death threats.
Although the government actively condemns all threats and violence toward the media, its supporters' hostility toward journalists stems in part from Chavez's confrontational attitude.
Canton recalled that he had already issued a warning to the Venezuelan government over a year ago about Chavez's immoderate language when discussing the press.
"The comments by senior public officials against the media could lead to acts of intimidation or self-censorship in contradiction of the right to freedom of expression and of information," the OAS expert said.
Meanwhile, Chavez's opponents have taken advantage of Canton's visit to express their dissatisfaction with the president's authoritarian approach to government.
At the start of Canton's short-lived news conference, National Guard Capt. Pedro Flores presented him with a letter signed by 20 serving military officers.
The letter, which called on Chavez to resign, accused the president of hostility towards the press and Catholic Church and of politicizing the Armed Forces.
The authors also expressed their support for Air Force Col. Pedro Vicente Soto, who on Thursday afternoon became the first serving officer to call publicly for Chavez to step down.
"Defending democracy is always the right thing to do and I feel qualified to represent the voice of the Armed Forces," Soto told a seminar organized by the opposition. "Chavez has no authority to overturn 44 years of democracy."
Soto later addressed an opposition rally in central Caracas and led several thousand people in noisy protests outside the La Casona presidential palace.
On Friday morning, Air Force Commander Gen. Regulo Anselmi gave Soto 72 hours to turn himself in to face charges relating to his anti-government speech.
Soto does not, however, believe his safety can be guaranteed if he is taken into custody. Members of the public intervened Thursday to prevent armed military police from arresting the dissident officer on a Caracas highway, and opposition activists are camped outside his house to prevent further attempts to detain him.
"I will not hand myself in because I have not committed any crime," Soto said Friday. "I have acted throughout in accordance with the Constitution."
Senior Armed Forces officers nonetheless plan to charge Soto with insubordination.
"He knows the military operates on the principles of discipline, respect and a clear hierarchy," Gen. Lucas Rincón said. "If he disagreed with something, he should have made use of the proper channels within his institution."