National Press Club suspends forum on freedom of press and civil liberties

The National Press Club decided to postpone a forum on freedom of the press and civil liberties under the government of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez following a complaint about the event by the Venezuelan Embassy.

The postponement irked the event's organizers, including the Washington chapter of a Venezuelan student group opposed to Chavez. The student group is drafting a letter to the press club's board of directors seeking clarification of the Venezuelan government's role in canceling Friday's event.

But National Press Club President Jerry Zremski said the postponement had nothing to do with pressure from Chavez's government. Instead the forum would have violated fundamental journalistic principles of fairness by excluding any representative or supporter of the Venezuelan government.

"If it's going to be a forum with the good name of the National Press Club behind it, it's going to have to be a balanced forum," Zremski said.

He said the event was initially scheduled as a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington with a leader of the student protests in Venezuela that have swelled since May 27 when Chavez refused to renew the license of a leading opposition-aligned television station.

Zremski said such a press conference would have been fine, but that it had morphed without the press club's knowledge into a forum with multiple Chavez opponents. While he acknowledged that it was the Venezuelan Embassy's complaint that alerted him to the changes in the event's format, he said he would have demanded changes no matter who complained.

"In no way should it be read that the press club agrees with the Chavez regime" on the issues of freedom of the press, Zremski said.

Carla Bustillos - an American University student and member of the D.C. chapter of Venezuelan Students Abroad, which helped organize the forum - acknowledged that the panel was made up of people who oppose the Chavez regime, but said she saw no reason that her group should be required to provide equal time to Chavez supporters. She also said that the press club did not express its concerns until a day before the event - too late to make the necessary changes.

She questioned whether the press club had caved in to diplomatic pressure and asked the press club's board to provide a more detailed explanation.

"We want to know what kind of contact they had with the embassy," Bustillos said.

The Venezuelan Embassy declined comment.

Zremski said the press club is still willing to consider sponsoring an event that conforms with the club's guidelines. He also said the student group is free to do what many other organizations do - rent a room at the press club and hold its own forum without press club sponsorship.

Bustillos estimated it would cost about $3,700 (2,723 EUR) to do the forum without press club sponsorship, well beyond the student group's budget.