Press freedom under assault in Venezuela?
Venezuelan Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega July 30 proposed legislation to limit the media's freedom of expression in certain circumstances, citing the importance of national security. Under the proposed law, journalists could face up to four years in prison for "threatening the social peace, security and independence of the nation, public order, stability of state institutions, mental health, and public morals and for generating a climate of impunity or insecurity. The law would also punish those who disseminate false information, resulting in public panic. Ortega later stressed to the media that the measures are essential for balancing freedom of expression with safety and security concerns.
The Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) called the proposed legislation a "serious setback to freedom of expression and democracy in Venezuela, and part of a pattern of repression by President Chavez to silence independent and critical voices." The National Assembly, controlled by allies of President Hugo Chávez, began debating the measure Thursday and is expected to approve it within the next few months.
Venezuela has been criticized repeatedly for its limits on freedom of expression and religion. In May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) added Venezuela to its "watch list" of countries that limit religious freedom. In February the US State Department criticized Venezuela for press restrictions in its 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In September, Venezuelan officials ordered two senior Human Rights Watch (HRW) staff to leave the country after after the group released a report concluding that democracy and human rights have suffered under the Chávez administration. (Jurist, July 31)
The move comes as the Venezuelan government has announced the revocation of the licenses of more than 200 radio stations, citing the need to combat "media terrorism" by privately owned networks. The stations are to be transfered into public hands to "democratize" the airwaves. "The use of the radio-electric spectrum is one of the few areas where the revolution has not been felt," said Diosdado Cabello, head of the telecommunications agency. The stations, almost 40% of the country's total, had not updated their registrations, Cabello said.
TV stations have long been obliged to interrupt regular programming to transmit Chávez's speeches—which can last more than four hours—when he declares what is known as a "cadena." The measure will affect RCTV, a vocal critic of Chávez that relaunched as a subscription network after its public license was revoked in 2007. It supported a brief coup against Chávez in 2002. (The Guardian, July 10)
"This is part of a package of measures against freedom of expression in the best Cuban style," said Nelson Belfort, president of Caracas-based Circuito Nacional Belfort, which owns five of the closed radio stations. "The government doesn't accept a single criticism." His stations are among 32 that are to close immediately. (Bloomberg, Aug. 3, 2009)
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