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US Expresses Grave Concerns About Venezuelan Media Law

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it is gravely concerned about a pending new media law in Venezuela that its critics say could silence dissent by opponents of President Hugo Chavez.

The State Department says it joins human rights groups in expressing grave concerns about the threat to freedom of expression in Venezuela posed by the new media law.

After some six weeks of debate, the controversial legislation was narrowly approved by parliament in Caracas last Thursday, and is now awaiting the signature of President Chavez.

Among other things, the law would ban vulgar language on Venezuelan T-V and radio in daytime hours, and prohibit images and sounds related to alcohol and drug use and violence.

It would provide for heavy fines or the closure of broadcast stations found to have violated the standards, or broadcast messages that promote the disruption of public order.

The measure also requires that a set portion of all programming be made in Venezuela.

The Chavez government, which initiated the measure, says it will improve the quality of programming and democratize access to the airwaves.

But domestic critics, joined by human rights groups, say they fear it will violate press freedoms and silence Chavez opponents.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has said the vague language of the law could be used to impose indirect restrictions on freedom of expression. The measure has also been criticized by Human Rights Watch and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

A State Department official told V.O.A. the United States shares the concerns, saying the measure imposes unclear restrictions on media content, and allows the government to censor content it considers harmful to public order and national security.

The official said a free press and freedom of expression are a critical element of democratic governance.

He said the United States is disappointed to see a law whose spirit is contrary to longstanding Venezuelan traditions and institutions, and urges the Chavez government to review those aspects of the law that undermine freedom of expression.

Mr. Chavez can either sign the bill into law or sent it back to parliament for revisions. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry has accused foreign critics of the bill of meddling in the country's affairs.

The United States has had a difficult relationship with Mr. Chavez, a left-leaning populist who has maintained close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Among other things, Mr. Chavez has accused the United States of supporting a military coup that briefly deposed him in 2002, and of being behind the recent recall campaign against him - charges Washington has denied.

Official returns said Mr. Chavez won the August 15 referendum with nearly 60 per cent of the votes, but the Bush administration hesitated to accept the results for several days amid opposition claims of fraud.

The State Department subsequently did embrace the outcome, after observers from the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center conducted a partial audit of returns and said they found no evidence of vote-rigging.