A new media law that came into force this week in Venezuela has caused widespread concern among Venezuelan and international human rights and press freedom organizations. Ostensibly aimed at protecting children from violent or sexual content in radio and television broadcasts, the law gives the government broad discretionary powers to fine and even close down broadcasters.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has long had a difficult relationship with the country's independent media, most of which is fiercely opposed to his government.
Matters worsened after a coup attempt in April 2002, during which the president took opposition TV stations off the air, and the media censored the views and actions of the supporters who restored him to power.
Ever since, the government has been seeking ways to curb what it sees as media excesses.
The new law on Social Responsibility in television and Radio is presented by the president and his supporters as a response to popular demands for an end to scenes of sex, violence and strong language during daytime viewing. Announcing that the government would be 'inflexible' in applying the law, President Chávez said any radio or television station supporting what he called 'coup plotting or unpatriotic interests' would be closed down.
Ever since it was first debated in parliament last year, the law has been fiercely opposed by the opposition, which says it is unconstitutional and repressive. But criticism has not been confined to Venezuela. The law has met with strong opposition from international groups like the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Press Association and the Paris-based group Reporters without Borders. The government accuses them of being biased in favor of the opposition.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department said it is deeply troubled by the new Venezuelan law, saying it imposes 'vague and unclear restrictions on media content.' A Venezuelan representative to the Organization of American States (Ilenia Medina) says the law is intended to ensure access to the media and protect the people's right to information. She also says it does not criminalize actions by the media, but only imposes what she calls 'administrative sanctions.'
Concern has focused on the law's vague language, the insertion of clearly political offenses relating to public order and state security, and the discretionary powers placed in the hands of the state. A watchdog body to be set up under the law will have a majority of government appointees, and will be able to order 'provisional' bans on the broadcast of offending images. Critics say that is a breach of the constitutional prohibition against prior censorship.
A number of other controversial measures have either been approved or are in the legislative pipeline. They include a reform of the penal code and an anti-terrorism law. The two measures outlaw many forms of peaceful protest customarily used by the opposition, such as banging pots and pans and blocking highways. Among the new so-called 'terrorist' offenses are some with disturbing implications for the media, including a ban on causing panic by spreading false news. The definition of 'false' and the decision as to what constitutes panic will be left to the authorities.