Letters   |   Venezuela

Legislation will restrict press freedom

December 15, 2004

Hugo Chávez Frías
President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Palacio de Miraflores
Caracas, Venezuela

Via facsimile: 58-212-864-6002

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed about several legal developments that restrict press freedom in Venezuela.

On December 2, the pro-government majority in the National Assembly approved legislation increasing criminal penalties for defamation. The approved reforms to more than 30 articles in the Penal Code broaden the categories of government officials protected by so-called desacato (disrespect) provisions, which criminalize expressions that are offensive to public officials and state institutions. In addition, the reforms drastically increase criminal penalties for defamation and slander. Those convicted of defamation and slander will now be allowed suspended sentences or conditional releases only after having served one-fourth of their prison terms and having paid a fine.

CPJ believes that these reforms are intended to stifle dissent and were approved hastily without proper debate. The reforms also ignore other efforts to update the Penal Code--such as one bill drafted by Supreme Court justices and another one by a legislative joint committee--currently under discussion in the National Assembly. The pro-government block of legislators was expected to formally approve the reforms yesterday, December 14, but instead postponed final approval until the coming legislative sessions in January 2005.

CPJ is also disturbed by the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which was passed on December 7 by the National Assembly, was immediately signed by Your Excellency, and went into effect two days later. A controversial law drafted by the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), it was introduced in January 2003 before the legislative by pro-government legislators. While your government has said the law was needed to "establish the social responsibility" of TV and radio broadcasters, we believe that the law's broad language could be used to muzzle the private media and impose censorship.

Although legislators stripped the law of some of its most onerous provisions in 2003, it still contains vaguely worded restrictions that could affect the right to freedom of expression and is excessively punitive. Under Article 29, for instance, television and radio broadcasters that disseminate messages that "promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order" or "are contrary to the security of the Nation" may be suspended for up to 72 hours. If a media outlet repeats any of these infractions within the next five years, its broadcasting concession could be suspended for up to five years.

Article 7 of the law allows broadcasting "graphic descriptions or images of real violence" from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. only if the broadcast is live and the content is "indispensable" for understanding the information or is aired as a consequence of unforeseen events. It has already been reported that local TV channels have refrained from showing images of violent riots that occurred last week in the capital, Caracas, for fear of violating the law.

Taken together, these laws have the potential to create an environment in which fear of government reprisal causes self-censorship. While the media in Venezuela have been able to criticize your government forcefully until now, the new legal measures increase criminal sanctions for such reporting. We also believe that the new legislation violates widely accepted standards for the exercise of freedom of expression, including recent legal opinions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that clearly suggest that criminal penalties for defamation are an unnecessary restriction on freedom of expression and should be abolished.

We urge you to support a repeal of criminal defamation and desacato provisions. Regarding the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, we also call on you to consider backing new legislation that allows for the continued robust debate that has characterized the Venezuelan press until now.

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.

Sincerely,

Ann Cooper
Executive Director


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