Journalists protest in Venezuela

CARACAS: Hundreds gathered in Venezuela on Friday to demand justice after a group of journalists protesting media regulations were kicked, punched and beaten with sticks.

Attackers injured 12 of the journalists on Thursday as they passed out leaflets warning against a new education law that critics fear could lead to indoctrination in schools.

Photos of the violence showed apparent supporters of President Hugo Chavez descending on the group, then shoving, kicking and beating them with sticks. The journalists, some bloodied in the confrontation, later reported the attackers shouted slogans in support of Chavez's government.

The leading Caracas daily Ultimas Noticias, which has a government-friendly editorial line, said 12 journalists employed by its newspaper group were injured. The paper ran a front-page headline declaring: "Enough with the violence!"

The government condemned the violence and ordered an investigation. No arrests have been made.

Ultimas Noticias quoted witnesses saying the attackers emerged from a pro-government television station, Avila TV. It published a photograph showing a group pummeling a person lying on the pavement, while two of the attackers wielded sticks.

Avila TV denied involvement in a statement, calling the accusations one of "many attacks" aimed at discrediting the station.

On Friday, about 300 protesters led by journalists chanted "Freedom of expression!" outside the attorney general's office. Some held signs with photos of injured reporters under the words: "Stop the aggression against journalists!"

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami condemned the violence, saying the journalists were protesting peacefully when attacked. They had been handing out fliers warning against a provision of an education law that outline sanctions for reports that "produce terror" among children or incite hate. The legislation was approved early Friday by lawmakers allied with Chavez.

The reporters were attacked a couple of blocks away from the National Assembly, where police broke up a larger protest with tear gas.

"A man hit me over the head with a stick," reporter Maria Rondon told Ultimas Noticias. Another journalist, Sergio Moreno, said a woman struck him on the back with a rock.

Carlos Lauria of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists urged the government to "prosecute those responsible to the full extent of the law." The Inter American Press Association urged an "immediate and complete investigation."

Tensions have been on the rise between Venezuela's private media and Chavez's government. Earlier this month, regulators forced at least 32 radio stations off the air, refusing to renew some licenses and revoking others because officials said they failed to comply with regulations.

Chavez has repeatedly clashed with media outlets he accuses of conspiring against him.

Lauria said Chavez and his government should abstain from using inflammatory language against the media. "It promotes a climate, an environment, where these incidents happen," he said.