The two stations, Globovisión and Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), face possible sanction under broadcasting regulations that are inconsistent with international norms on freedom of expression.
"Despite his verbal attacks on the opposition press and television, President Chávez has so far avoided curbing media freedoms," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "It is troubling that his government is now taking steps to limit the public debate in Venezuela."
On January 20, officials from the Ministry of Infrastructure visited the Caracas offices of Globovisión and Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) to notify them that the ministry was investigating the stations for possible infractions of broadcasting regulations.
The officials presented the stations with letters signed by Minister of Infrastructure Diosdado Cabello, informing the stations that administrative proceeding had been opened against them for possible violations of the Radio Communications Regulations and the Partial Regulations on Television Transmissions, as well as Article 171.6 of the Organic Telecommunications Law.
Among the regulations cited in the 17-page letter to RCTV are those prohibiting broadcasts that subvert public order, discredit authorities and institutions, or propagate false or tendentious news. The same regulations were cited in the letter to Globovisión. The two stations were given fifteen working days to present the Ministry of Infrastructure with their defense to these charges.
By barring even legitimate criticism of public authorities and institutions, the regulations conflict with international norms on freedom of expression, specifically Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Venezuela became a party to the ICCPR in 1978.
Both stations face fines and the possible suspension or cancellation of their broadcasting licenses if the charges are upheld.
The investigation of the two stations is occurring in a context of intense political polarization. Venezuela is currently in the eighth week of a national strike called by the largest labor federation, Fedecámeras, and the Coordinadora Democrática, an opposition umbrella group. Much of the Venezuelan media has openly supported the strike and opposition calls for President Chávez to step down.
In the Ministry of Infrastructure's letters, Globovisión and RCTV are accused of transmitting statements and propaganda by opposition leaders and military officers who have called publicly for the resignation of President Chávez. The letters cite transmissions monitored by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) between October and December 2002.
There is no doubt that much of the criticism at issue was put in extreme terms. The letter to Globovisión makes reference, for example, to broadcasts in which the Venezuelan government was allegedly accused of "crimes against humanity," and President Chávez was called a "criminal" and an "assassin." Yet by threatening to revoke the licenses of the two stations, the government would be relying on dangerously overbroad regulations to restrict the public debate.
This is not the first time that the Venezuela government has accused television stations of violating media regulations. In October 2001, government officials began an investigation against Globovisión under the radio communications regulations for allegedly having broadcast a false statement by a taxi driver regarding killings of colleagues by criminals. The investigation was dropped soon after.