Censorship and Abuse of Power Are New Setbacks for Free Expression
July 31, 2009
What we are witnessing is the most comprehensive assault on free speech in Venezuela since Chávez came to power.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) - The Venezuelan government has adopted and proposed measures that reduce the ability of government critics to voice their opinions and will seriously limit freedom of expression in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 30, 2009, Venezuela's attorney general introduced draft legislation on "media crimes" that establish prison sentences of up to four years for anyone who, through media outlets, provides "false" information that "harm[s] the interests of the state."

This proposal follows several other actions in July that severely undermine freedom of expression. TV and radio advertisements criticizing a legislative proposal made by the Chávez administration were taken off the air. The government also proposed new regulations to compel cable channels to carry President Hugo Chávez's speeches live, and announced that it would limit the ability of radio stations to share programming to extend their news coverage throughout the country.

"What we are witnessing is the most comprehensive assault on free speech in Venezuela since Chávez came to power," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in the region that shows such flagrant disregard for universal standards of freedom of expression."

‘Media Crimes' Legislation

The draft legislation on "media crimes" would make it a criminal offense to disseminate through a media outlet "false" news that "harm[s] the interests of the state " and to "mislead or distort news, generating a false perception of the facts or creating opinions, if this affects social peace, national security, public order, mental health or public morale." Anyone found guilty of this "media crime" could face a prison sentence of up to four years.

Such legislation would be a clear violation of international norms on freedom of expression, including article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights to which Venezuela is party. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has stated that: "One cannot legitimately rely on the right of a society to be honestly informed in order to put in place a regime of prior censorship for the alleged purpose of eliminating information deemed to be untrue in the eyes of the censor." The Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000, states that: "Prior conditioning of expressions, such as truthfulness, timeliness or impartiality is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression recognized in international instruments."

"The proposed law is a recipe for censorship and totally inconsistent with international norms on free expression," said Vivanco.

Ban on Ad Campaign

On July 3, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) initiated an administrative proceeding against four TV and two radio stations for airing an advertising campaign produced by two organizations that work to protect private property rights in Venezuela. The campaign, at a time when the Chávez administration is introducing legislation to define, establish, and regulate the existence of social property in Venezuela, consisted of six 30-second spots featuring average citizens - for example, a housewife and a young woman who works in a family-owned bakery - who discuss the effort they put into acquiring property. They each say they will "defend" their property if someone tries to take it away from them.

The Telecommunications Commission ordered the stations to take the advertisements off the air immediately while it investigates the case, contending that the ads "contain messages that could cause anguish, fear, and unrest in the population, which could encourage group actions to alter the public order that could threaten the security of the nation." Diosdado Cabello, who holds the title of minister of popular power for public works and housing and is director of the commission, said that this type of campaign affects "the mental health of the population."

The commission also prohibited airing any "similar" advertisements. The broad language of the prohibition makes it difficult for stations to anticipate when the government might consider them to be in violation. The ban on the advertisements is already being applied although the administrative proceeding has not concluded.

Also on July 3, prosecutors began a criminal investigation against the two organizations and the newspaper Ultimas Noticias, after the paper published a print ad that shows the image of a naked pregnant woman covering her breasts and says: "The Social Property Law takes what is yours... No to the Cuban Law." During the course of the investigation, prosecutors asked a judge to order the newspaper to suspend publication of the ad, stating that it is a case of gender violence. The image and text does not contain any suggestion of violence against women. A judge dismissed the request on procedural grounds, but prosecutors have appealed.

"This constitutes an unreasonable restriction to the right of free speech," said Vivanco. "Such a blanket ban on advertisements criticizing an official legislative proposal limits public debate, which is key in any democratic society."

Forced Broadcast of Presidential Speeches

Minister Cabello also proposed new regulations that state that any cable channel with more than 30 percent Venezuelan-produced programming (including shows and advertisements) would be compelled to transmit President Chávez's speeches live at his request, and would be subject to Venezuelan media laws, including the Law on Social Responsibility.

Since taking office in February 1999, President Chávez has used the government's legal authority to compel stations using public airwaves to broadcast presidential messages, forcing network TV and radio stations to transmit almost 2,000 speeches live. The speeches are not limited to extraordinary circumstances in which the government would need to reach the entire Venezuelan audience. In 2009, Chávez has forced stations to transmit live 75 speeches averaging over an hour, including a record-setting one in January that lasted seven hours and 34 minutes.

"For years, Chávez has abused his power to take over the airwaves to promote his political agenda," said Vivanco. "Now he is extending this abuse to cable channels, which are usually not subject to this type of practices."

Limits on Sharing Programming

As the Chávez government seeks to expand its power to impose compulsory broadcasting of government programming, it is also seeking to limit the ability of private stations to share their own programming on a voluntary basis. Currently, private radio stations, which generally only operate at a local level, rely on these voluntary networks to obtain wider coverage of their programming across the country.

Targeting opposition radio, Minister Cabello proposed that no more than three radio stations would be able to group together to transmit the same programming, for a maximum of half an hour per day. Cabello justified this measure by stating that the radio stations that share programs to reach wider audiences "have tried to destroy the Bolivarian Revolution" and are used to "hear the voice of the oligarchy, the interests of the oligarchy, the enemies of the people... to try to brainwash the Venezuelan people."

By contrast, the government continues to get national coverage by forcing private radio stations to air Chávez's speeches live.

"Limiting free speech on such political grounds is essentially an indirect way of imposing censorship," said Vivanco.

In a September 2008 report, "A Decade Under Chávez," Human Rights Watch documented steps the Chávez government has taken to undermine free expression through a variety of measures aimed at reshaping media control and content. So far, a vibrant public debate continues in Venezuela, in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in their criticism and defense of Chávez. However, by expanding and toughening the penalties for speech and broadcasting offenses, Chávez and his legislative supporters have strengthened the state's capacity to limit free speech, and created powerful incentives for self-censorship. It has also abused the state's control of broadcasting frequencies to intimidate and discriminate against stations with overtly critical programming.

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