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Venezuela: Halt Censorship, Intimidation of Media

Government Acts to Curb Discussion About Chavez Health, Inauguration

(Washington, DC) – Venezuela should end censorship and intimidation of media that challenge the official line regarding President Hugo Chávez’s health and inauguration, Human Rights Watch said today.

In recent days, the government has ordered a television station to cease transmission of spots that question its interpretation of the constitutional requirements for the re-elected president’s inauguration. Intelligence agents have searched the home and confiscated the computers of a blogger suspected of authoring tweets questioning official information provided about Chávez’s health.

“Over the years, the Chávez government has built a legal regime that allows it to censor and punish its critics, in clear violation of international norms,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Now it is using these laws to limit public discussion on issues of national importance.”

On January 9, 2013, the government-controlled telecommunications agency, CONATEL, ordered the television station Globovisión to halt transmission of a series of four spots that utilize excerpts from official speeches and the text of the Venezuelan Constitution to criticize the government’s position on whether an inauguration could take place on January 10 – the date stipulated in the Constitution – without the president’s presence in Venezuela. The order is not limited to the four spots, but also bars the station from broadcasting “any similar video.”

CONATEL cited as the basis for its order article 27 of Venezuela’s broadcasting law, which was passed by the pro-Chávez National Assembly in 2004 and modified in 2010 to prohibit radio and television stations from broadcasting any material that “foment anxiety in the population or threaten public order,” “deny the authority of the legitimately constituted authorities,” or “incite or promote hatred and intolerance for religious [or] political reasons.” CONATEL also announced that it had opened an investigation of the Globovisíon spots that could lead to administrative sanctions. Globovisión, the only remaining television station with national coverage consistently critical of Chávez’s policies, is facing six other administrative investigations and has already received one sanction under article 27 that involved a heavy fine. A second ruling against the station could result in another fine, suspension of its transmission, or revocation of its license.

On January 6, the national intelligence police searched the home of Federico Medina Ravell, a businessman, who has been repeatedly denounced on state television as the supposed author of tweets questioning information the government has provided on Chávez’s health. Medina, who was not present at the time, said in an interview published online that the intelligence agents detained his wife and children for several hours and took two computers from his home. In a statement on January 8, the Attorney General’s Office confirmed that the computers had been confiscated and said that Medina was under investigation for “instigating terrorism in social networks.”“There is nothing in the content of Globovisión’s broadcasts that could remotely be described as incitement or a threat to public order,” Vivanco said. “And it would be outrageous if a blogger was prosecuted on terrorism charges for questioning official information about the president’s health.”

Correction: The language of article 27 of the Venezuelan broadcasting law cited in the first version of this press release was taken from the official statement of CONATEL, which contains errors. The present language is a direct translation of the actual text of article 27.

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