Bill punishing ‘media crimes’ in Venezuela a serious setback

New York, July 30, 2009–A bill by Venezuela’s attorney general that punishes “press crimes” with prison terms is an unprecedented step in the crusade by President Hugo Chávez Frías’ administration to curtail media freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said that the Venezuelan government needs to confront “new forms of criminality created by the abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion” when introducing the bill before the legislature today, according to local news reports. 

“This bill is reminiscent of the dark days of Latin American dictatorships with its archaic provisions for so-called ‘media crimes,'” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “It is a serious setback to freedom of expression and democracy in Venezuela, and part of a pattern of repression by President Chávez to silence independent and critical voices. It must be scrapped immediately.”

The government’s proposal, reviewed by CPJ, is intended to “prevent and punish actions or omissions displayed through the media that can constitute a crime,” according to Article 1 of the initiative. Venezuela aims to seek a balance between the right to freedom of expression, and “timely, truthful, and impartial information,” the same article states.

The definition of “press crimes,” according to the bill, involves actions that threaten the “social peace, the security and independence of the nation, the stability of state institutions, mental health or public ethics, and actions that cause a state of impunity,” and are committed by the media. The bill stipulates prison terms of six months to four years for the crimes.

Under Article 5, “any person who releases false news in the media that causes serious public disorder, fear and anxiety among the population, or damages to state institutions” will be given a jail term of two to four years. The “manipulation of news,” and a media outlet’s refusal to reveal the identity of reporters without bylines can also incur up to two years in jail.

According to many Venezuelan journalists and regional press freedom advocates, the bill violates international standards on freedom of expression and goes against the rising trend of international legal opinion that journalists should not be jailed for their work.

The government has engaged in a systematic campaign of harassment against critical media outlets. Earlier this month, Minister of Public Works and Housing Diosdado Cabello announced that authorities would begin administrative procedures to revoke the licenses of 240 radio stations that failed to update their data with regulators by a June 23 deadline. Days later, Cabello announced plans to further regulate cable and satellite television stations that broadcast largely Venezuelan-produced content before the National Assembly.

In recent months, Venezuelan regulators have also opened five administrative procedures against the private broadcaster Globovisión, known for its antigovernment views. The latest came on July 3, after the TV station aired an advertising campaign aimed at defending private property, which, according to local authorities, contained messages that could create “anguish, anxiety, and fear,” and promote public disorder. The broadcaster’s license could eventually be revoked. Authorities have requested that the attorney general’s office determine whether the broadcaster is criminally liable for violating the telecommunications law