Venezuela media bills would harm freedom of expression

New York, December 14, 2010–The Venezuelan legislature should reject proposed legal reforms that would harm freedom of expression, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Legislation that would regulate Internet content and could force broadcaster Globovisión off the air are up for consideration this week in the Venezuelan National Assembly.

On Thursday, Vice President Elías Jaua put forward a bill to reform the 2004 Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television that would expand existing broadcast regulations to the Internet, according to a copy of the bill reviewed by CPJ. It proposes to restrict access to websites if they are found to distribute content that incites violence against President Hugo Chávez, disrespects public officials, provokes panic or social disorder, or attacks “good habits,” without specifying what this means.

The bill would also curb content in electronic media according to the time of the day, with adult content reserved for shows after midnight, including violent or sexual content and soap operas. This includes news images of violence.

“We strongly reject these provisions, which represent yet another attempt by President Chávez to stifle media freedom and control the flow of information,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We urge the National Assembly to ignore these proposed reforms that would make a mockery of Venezuela’s stated commitment to freedom of expression.”

The social responsibility law, passed in 2004, has been widely criticized by press freedom advocates for its broad and vaguely worded restrictions on free expression. Article 29, for example, bars television and radio stations from broadcasting messages that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order” or “are contrary to the security of the nation.” CPJ research shows that Venezuelan broadcasters have cancelled critical news programming to comply with the law.   

While lawmakers said the provision was aimed at protecting citizens’ “moral and ethical honor,” according to Reuters, critics argued the measure would seriously limit Internet freedom. Under the proposed reform, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL)–the government’s regulator–could order Internet service providers to restrict access to websites on their servers. “This is intended to control websites that post critical comments of the government,” warned Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the Caracas-based daily El Nacional. 

Another bill under consideration in the National Assembly would reform the telecommunications law and may force Globovisión, the only remaining critical broadcaster, off the air, the network said in a public letter to the legislature. The bill, reviewed by CPJ, will force owners of all TV and radio stations to re-register with CONATEL in person. If broadcasters fail to comply with this provision they will immediately lose their concession, according to the bill. Globovisión said the bill is meant to strip the network of its broadcast license.

Globovisión, known for its strident antigovernment views, has been the only critical private network broadcasting since RCTV went off the air in May 2007. The network is facing a series of politically motivated investigations, and its president, Guillermo Zuloaga, fled the country in June after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. Zuloaga, who owns several car dealerships, has been accused of unlawful lending and conspiracy in connection with the dealerships. He has denied any wrongdoing and said the charges were fabricated as a pretext to shut down Globovisión. Ana Cristina Núñez, Globovisión’s legal adviser, said it would be impossible for Zuloaga to appear in person given his legal status, and that he did not plan to return to Venezuela.

Last week, the government announced it was acquiring a minority 20 percent of Globovisión’s shares after completing its takeover of Banco Federal, a bank whose president, Nelson Mezerhane, controlled a minority stake of the critical broadcaster. Authorities took control of Banco Federal in 2010, citing financial problems and irregularities. Facing prosecution, Mezerhane also fled the country earlier this year. Globovisión insisted that the official move would not alter its editorial line.   

Chávez’s allies are trying to pass several bills before January 5, when a newly elected legislature takes office, according to local news reports. The ruling party lost its absolute majority in the September legislative elections. The National Assembly is debating today whether to give Chávez the power to rule by decree for 12 months. The Venezuelan president said he is seeking these powers to help flood victims, but critics said it is a move meant to push forward his political agenda.