In what journalists fear could be a taste of things to come, Venezuela's new anti-hate law was enforced for the first time against a news organization on January 30, when Yndira Lugo, the editor of Diario Región, was called before government agents for questioning.
Lugo told CPJ that Diario Región--an independent daily and the only newspaper circulating in the eastern state of Sucre--is under fire for a January 11 column. Written by the Communist Party of Venezuela, the column warns that a severe economic meltdown has put the country on the brink of a social explosion. Lugo said that the newspaper was informed that it is being investigated for possible violations of the anti-hate law after a community organization with ties to the ruling Socialist Party complained to the state attorney general's office about the column.
"We are very worried about this. We do not know what is going to happen," Lugo told CPJ.
She and other Venezuelan journalists said they fear the investigation is an indication of how President Nicolás Maduro's increasingly authoritarian government will use the law to muzzle independent news organizations. They also predict that the law will be used to target online news sites that, until recently, had been largely unregulated.
"The web used to be an area that the government could not control. But now, with the anti-hate law, it can," Joseph Poliszuk, a founder and editor of the Caracas-based investigative news site Armando, told CPJ.
The Maduro government, which is grappling with a severe economic crisis and sporadic street protests, already has numerous tools to control and intimidate the media, according to CPJ research. These include a restrictive 2004 press law, state advertisement boycotts, threats to cancel broadcast licenses, and its monopoly over the importation and distribution of scarce newsprint. Now, it has another intimidating tool.
The National Constituent Assembly approved the Anti-Hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence on November 8. Despite the assembly not being recognized by the political opposition and non-governmental organizations, the de facto legislative body, which is loyal to Maduro, has extensive powers.
The law mandates punishment and prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone who instigates hate or violence on the radio, television, in print or via social media. It allows the government to revoke licenses or block web pages of any outlet that shares messages that the government views as promoting hate or intolerance. Social media users and administrators could be fined for failing to take down "hate" messages within six hours.
Delcy Rodríguez, a close Maduro ally and president of the constituent assembly, called the anti-hate law an example for the rest of the world, according to news reports.
But Mariengracia Chirinos, of the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), described the law's provisions as "extreme," and pointed out that it provides no definition of hateful speech, leaving it up to judges to decide. This ambiguous language, she said, seems designed to promote self-censorship among news websites and social media users.
"Anything could be considered hateful language," Chirinos told CPJ. She added that because the anti-hate measure was approved by what critics consider an illegitimate legislative body, IPYS does not refer to it as a "law" but rather a "rule."
Nelson Bocaranda, editor of the Caracas news website Runrunes, points out that articles in the anti-hate law refer to "fascists" which is the term Maduro officials use for the political opposition. "Even the way the law is written shows the government's political bias," Bocaranda told CPJ.
Calls and emails by CPJ to Venezuela's Communications Ministry were not answered.
Venezuela's anti-hate law comes as several Latin American governments consider similar legislation to police news organizations and the internet ahead of congressional and presidential elections.
In Brazil, a political reform bill initially included a provision that would have forced websites to suspend any content deemed offensive by political parties or candidates. InternetLab, a Brazilian research center that focuses on technology and the law, called the provision a threat to freedom of speech and, in response to widespread criticism, it was removed from the final bill.
Paraguayan lawmakers debated a similar bill, prompting CPJ along with more than 20 other rights organizations to send a joint letter in October warning that the proposed law posed a threat to journalists and their sources, and would restrict citizens' right to freedom of expression. Amid mounting criticism, the bill did not come up for vote.
Chirinos argues that Venezuela's anti-hate law is especially threatening because President Maduro's government has become more authoritarian. The ruling Socialist Party dominates the executive and judicial branches, and the opposition-controlled congress has been sidelined by the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly. In addition, Maduro loyalists control government watchdog agencies, the electoral council, the military, and much of the traditional press.
As a result, social media as well as news websites have become vital sources of news and information, said Xabier Coscojuela, editor of the Caracas online newspaper Tal Cual. Last year for example, he said, the mostly pro-government traditional media largely ignored months of violent anti-Maduro protests in which more than 130 people were killed. By contrast, Coscojuela said, Tal Cual and other news websites reported extensively on the demonstrations, as did Twitter and Facebook users.
"In a different country an anti-hate law might be more acceptable. But in Venezuela, where judges and prosecutors answer to the government, it is unacceptable," Coscojuela told CPJ.
Besides Diario Sucre, the government has used--or threatened to use--the law to punish citizens expressing opinions that paint the Maduro administration in a bad light.
Caracas subway worker Wuilis Florentino Rodriguez was fired for complaining on Facebook that, amid hyperinflation and the collapse of the local currency, his salary was so small that he could no longer afford detergent to wash his uniform, according to reports. Six days later, he received a letter from César Ramon Vega, president of the state-run Caracas Metro, explaining that he had been terminated for violating the metro's ethics standards, as well as the anti-hate law.
In his state of the union speech on January 15, Maduro threatened to use the anti-hate law on two Roman Catholic priests for complaining in their homilies about food shortages, child malnutrition, and government corruption. In his response, Maduro berated the priests, calling them "devils in cassocks."
The president's comments are an example of how government officials routinely traffic in hateful speech, Coscojuela said, adding that in his view, if Venezuela's anti-hate law were applied evenly, numerous Maduro officials could end up facing prosecution.
Lugo, who has edited Diario Región for 12 years, told CPJ, that the anti-hate law investigation is the latest blow to the 45-year-old newspaper. Newsprint shortages and a lack of advertising due to the economic crisis have forced the paper, based in Cumaná, the capital of Sucre state, to reduce its size from 40 to 16 pages and daily circulation has tumbled from 50,000 to about 8,000 copies. Lugo added that last year she was beaten by a pro-government mob while covering a rally by an opposition politician, and then detained for about three hours by the National Guard.
Now, she and other editors could face prison for possible violations of the anti-hate law.
Lugo said that she was interrogated about the column for about two hours by military counterintelligence agents rather than officials from the attorney general's office. She said this may have been an effort to intimidate the newspaper. She said she was questioned about the editing process but was not asked to remove the column from the newspaper's website.
The attorney general's office in Sucre did not reply to requests for comment.
"This new law puts freedom of expression in jeopardy," she said. "Journalists can't work under these conditions."
[Reporting from Caracas]