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Rights Groups Concerned as Venezuela Reviews Media Laws

FILE - People raise their hands during the swear-in ceremony of Venezuela's National Assembly new term, in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 5, 2021.

A set of laws due to be debated in Venezuela could further limit citizens’ rights, experts are warning.

The country’s newly formed National Assembly was asked to review 34 laws earlier this month, including the Law on Social Responsibilities on Radio, Television and Electronic Media or “Ley Resorte,” which regulates media; and the International Cooperation Law, which governs how civil society groups operate in Venezuela.

No details have been made public about what reforms may be proposed, but rights groups and those who rely on platforms such as Twitter to access independent information raised concerns that any revisions could limit press freedom.

Ali Daniels, director of the nonprofit civil rights group Acceso a la Justicia, told VOA the plans for reform are further evidence that the Venezuelan government seeks to control the few spaces over which it has minimal control.

"If you want to control content on social networks, what you really want to control is dissent and the manifestations of freedom of expression that are made through it,” Daniels said.

José Gregorio Correa, a member of the newly formed National Assembly, told VOA he believes some amendments are needed to update the Resorte law, but that the government should avoid measures that restrict freedom of expression.

"It’s necessary that we make some amendments and adapt it to new realities. I don’t believe in restrictions; I believe in responsibilities,” Correa said, adding, “I don’t think the state may interfere in people's freedom to express themselves.”

Journalists, including those using social media, have an “obligation to answer,” Correa said, adding, “I do not think that social media should be restricted, but rather that those who use it, should be held accountable.”

VOA tried to reach other members of the new National Assembly for comment, but they did not respond to the requests.

The United States, European Union and several other countries do not recognize Venezuela's newly formed National Assembly, saying elections in December, which the opposition largely boycotted, failed to comply with international standards.

Free expression limited

Rafael Uzcátegui, coordinator of the nongovernmental organization Provea, said he is concerned that legal reforms to the International Cooperation Law could be used to limit criticism of rights abuses and ultimately mean greater restrictions on freedom of expression.

The law grants rights groups legal status in Venezuela and governs how they operate, including access to foreign funding.

Uzcátegui said any attempts to restrict the law could harm the ability of rights groups to investigate abuses and make it harder for groups “denouncing situations that are harmful to individuals and human rights.”

Fran Monroy, a Caracas-based journalist who specializes in technology, said the review could signal the "beginning of the end of social networks in Venezuela."

The space for independent reporting has shrunk in Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. The country ranks 147 out of 180, where 1 is the freest, according to the group’s annual press freedom index.

FILE - A Venezuelans picks a newspaper in Caracas, May 1, 2019, after a day of violent clashes on the streets of the capital spurred by opposition leader Juan Guaido's call on the military to rise up against President Nicolas Maduro.
FILE - A Venezuelans picks a newspaper in Caracas, May 1, 2019, after a day of violent clashes on the streets of the capital spurred by opposition leader Juan Guaido's call on the military to rise up against President Nicolas Maduro.

Radio and TV stations that broadcast critical content have lost access to broadcast frequencies, and legal and economic pressures have led news outlets to close or journalists to flee.

Social media has filled the gap left by traditional media, but that can also bring retaliation.

The nongovernmental organization Espacio Publicó has documented 25 cases of citizens being arrested for publishing content on digital platforms.

Twitter has also come into conflict with the Maduro government.

In 2020, the social media site suspended dozens of accounts linked to the government and military, including the oil ministry, Reuters reported.

Some accounts were later restored. At the time Twitter said it has systems set up to detect “platform manipulations” which account users can appeal if they are suspended in error.

This report originated in VOA’s Latin American Division. Maria Elena Little Endara contributed to this story.