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A draft law to increase state control of television and radio broadcasting in Venezuela threatens to undermine the media’s freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. Venezuela’s National Assembly, which has been voting article by article on the law, known as the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, is expected to approve it today.

“This legislation severely threatens press freedom in Venezuela,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Its vaguely worded restrictions and heavy penalties are a recipe for self-censorship by the press and arbitrariness by government authorities.”

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the proposed law contains loosely worded rules on incitement of breaches of public order that could penalize broadcasters’ legitimate expression of political views. If found responsible for the infractions, a television or radio station could be ordered to suspend transmissions for up to 72 hours, and have its broadcasting license revoked on a second offense.

These provisions violate international standards protecting free expression. Because of the importance of allowing a full and free public debate, the government must only impose restrictions on grounds of incitement where there is a clear relation between the speech in question and a specific criminal act.

Under the guise of protecting children from crude language, sexual content, and violence, the proposed law would also subject adults to restrictive and puritanical viewing standards. Several of the norms are ill-defined and subjective, and stations that infringe them would be subject to tough penalties.

For example, a station that broadcasts material considered to be “an affront to the integral education of children or adolescents” could face a fine of between 0.5 and 1 percent of its gross income in the previous tax year, a penalty that would apply for failure to comply with other regulations under the law. A combination of ill-defined norms and onerous fines would encourage pervasive self-censorship.

Television and radio stations would be obliged to transmit the government’s educational, informative or public safety broadcasts for up to 60 minutes a week. This is in addition to the president’s powers under article 192 of the Telecommunications Act (introduced in 2000 by the government of President Hugo

Chávez) to order stations to transmit in full his speeches and other political messages. Such an obligation is an illegitimate interference in editorial freedom.

The law establishes an 11-person Directorate of Social Responsibility, part of whose mandate is to enforce the law and punish infringements. Seven members of the directorate are government appointees. Its president, the Director General of the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), is appointed by the president and does not enjoy fixed tenure.

Until now, the Chávez government has largely respected press freedom even in the face of a strident and well-resourced opposition press. Indeed, as part of the often heated and acrimonious debate between supporters of the government and its opponents, the press has been able to express strong views without restriction. Private television companies have often adopted a blatantly partisan position, and their news and debate programs have been extremely hostile to the Chávez government.

At the same time, however, many journalists working for the primarily private media that support the opposition have been victims of aggression and intimidation by government supporters. And, to a lesser degree, journalists working for the primarily state media sympathetic to the government have also been subject to acts of intimidation.

Human Rights Watch supports legislation designed to encourage radio and television stations to promote a diverse and vibrant public debate. Any restrictions introduced by law, however, must be reasonable, necessary and proportionate to the public interest served. Broad or vaguely-defined restrictions, which if applied rigorously could lead to severe sanctions against broadcasters, only encourage self-censorship.

“Imposing a straitjacket on the media is not the way to promote democracy,” said Vivanco.

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