CARACAS, Venezuela – A Venezuelan lawmaker repeatedly slapped a journalist in the face during a television program Tuesday, accusing him of slander after he wrote about the death of her infant son years ago.
Congresswoman Iris Varela stormed onto the set of Gustavo Azocar's morning program on Tachira Regional Television, shouting: "I'm demanding a right of reply from this man who has offended me all the time on this program."
The on-air confrontation, in which Varela slapped Azocar several times and then hit him with the microphone, grabbed national attention in Venezuela and is likely to generate a wider debate in the country about free speech issues and the news media.
Azocar is an outspoken critic of leftist President Hugo Chavez, and Varela is one of Chavez's close allies in the National Assembly.
The lawmaker said her outrage had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with a dishonorable airing of her private life. Azocar recently wrote a book in which he recounted the death of Varela's infant son in a hospital in the early 1990s and called it a determining event in her life.
"He's offended me and he meddled with the most sacred thing, my dead son, and that's why I came," Varela said, holding the microphone after snatching it from Azocar.
He held up his eyeglasses, which were broken from an initial blow, exclaiming, "How about this?" Then he said, "Let me do the program."
"You've slandered me. ... Apologize!," she shouted. After several minutes of ranting, Varela hit him on the head with the microphone and stormed away saying, "Continue with your show!"
"What he's written deserves a trial," she said later.
Azocar said afterward that he holds Varela, the state governor and Chavez himself responsible "for anything, God forbid, that could happen to me or my three sons" as a result.
The incident came as a visiting delegation of the Miami-based Inter American Press Association expressed concern about what it said are threats, intimidation and government pressure facing the press in Venezuela. The IAPA delegation did not address the incident in the southwestern city of San Cristobal, which had not yet been widely reported.
IAPA delegation member Gonzalo Marroquin also said the group is concerned about a measure that critics warn could allow the government to censor the news media if Chavez declares a state of emergency.
"We consider this a regression in the constitution since earlier it was contemplated that even in states of emergency freedom of expression could not be limited," Marroquin said.
Chavez's information minister, Willian Lara, accused IAPA of lying about the constitutional reforms, which are to be decided by voters in a Dec. 2 referendum.
"The constitutional reform expands and puts the finishing touches on freedom of expression," Lara said in a statement.
The organization has been at loggerheads with Chavez's government in recent years. Lara has repeatedly accused if of representing the interests of media executives, not journalists; the organization says it sees serious threats to freedom of expression in Venezuela.