Demonstrators express support for the RCTV broadcasting station in Caracas on January 25, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(Washington, DC) - The Chávez administration should not abuse its authority to compel broadcast of presidential speeches that promote the government's political agenda, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 23, 2010, the Chávez government threatened to take action against cable providers that aired channels that did not comply with Venezuelan regulations, including the requirement to interrupt regular broadcasting to broadcast presidential speeches. The following day, the country's cable providers stopped broadcasting seven channels, including TV Chile, Chile's public TV channel, and RCTV International, the cable channel that was created after RCTVVenezuela's oldest television channel and a constant critic of President Hugo Chávezwas taken off the public airwaves in 2007.

"For years, Chávez has sought to intimidate and punish broadcasters who criticize his government," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Now he's also going after those who refuse to promote his own political agenda."

Since taking office in February 1999, Chávez has used the government's legal authority to compel radio and TV stations using public airwaves to transmit almost 2,000 presidential 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 forced stations to transmit live 141 speeches, including one that lasted seven hours and 34 minutes.

  

Under regulations adopted by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) in December 2009, cable channels with more than 30 percent Venezuelan-produced programming -including both shows and advertisements - are considered "national audiovisual producers" and are therefore required to transmit Chávez's speeches live at his request.

Last week, CONATEL published a list of 24 cable channels considered "national audiovisual producers," and determined that other channels not on that list would be considered "national" until they provide evidence that they are international channels.  

No official procedure with due process guarantees took place to determine whether any of the seven channels removed by the service providers on Sunday had violated any law.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Venezuelan government to reverse measures that reduce the ability of government critics to voice their opinions and that seriously undermine freedom of expression in the country. These measures include:

  • Amending the criminal code to extend the scope of desacato (disrespect) laws that criminalize offending public officials;
  • Abusing its control of broadcasting frequencies to punish radio stations with overtly critical programming;
  • Banning a series of TV and radio advertisements criticizing reforms proposed by the Chávez administration; and
  • Ordering private radio stations to broadcast for three-and-a-half hours every day programs selected by the government and produced by government-certified independent producers.