Sunday, 9 August 2009

Venezuela and "Media Crimes"

The government of Venezuela has decided to increase regulation of the media with the proposal of a new law that aims to define "media crimes". This proposed law was presented to the national assembly by Attorney General Luis Ortega Diaz on 30th July and is intended to strengthen the 2004 law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. It comes amid a tightening of control on the expression of views deemed problematic by the government as, on 1st August, 34 radio and TV stations had licenses withdrawn for a series of apparently "administrative" measures that, whilst legislatively distinct from the proposed law, further ensured a narrowing of public debate in the country.

A further measure that has been imposed on media for some years is the fact that they have to broadcast entire speeches by the President. These speeches, termed "cadenas" are speeches of indeterminate length that all terrestial channels have to broadcast simultaneously and which cable TV channels are only exempt from if they can prove that 70% of their production is of foreign origin. In 2009 thus far 75 live speeches have been broadcast this way including one that lasted 7 hours and 34 minutes.

The proposed new law will increase the penalties that were initially imposed under the 2004 law. Under the law as it stands the "offenses" are punished by fines whilst the new law will increase the punishments to penal terms, ranging from six months to 4 years. The "crimes" include broadcasting "false", "manipulated" or "distorted" reports, reports that "harm the interests of the state", attack "public decency" or undermine "mental health". In addition it will be criminal to refuse to reveal sources of information, thus undermining the journalistic use of sources. Human Rights Watch has termed the new law "the most comprehensive assault on free speech in Venezuela" since the current President came to power. Despite this there have been some defenders of the law, such as VHeadline who echo the claims of the Attorney General that the law does not harm free speech despite giving no definition for actions that would harm the "mental health" of the country, damage "public morale" or harm "social peace".

The attack on the media has been furthered recently by statements from the President that users of Twitter are "traitors" after a Twitter campaign against the proposed law. There are also suggestions that all Internet be controlled by the state telecom network. Since a judgment of the Supreme Tribunal in 2000 ruled that NGOs with non-Venezuelan leaders or foreign government funding are not part of "civil society" and can bring no legal actions it is perhaps not surprising that Twitter and the Internet might well also be targets for suspicion.

The general notion of "media crimes" and the accusations against the media belong with the French Revolution's Crime of Suspects that claimed that being suspected was equivalent to being guilty and show that there is no effective Rule of Law in Venezuela (something further clear from the exorbitantly high murder rate in the country). The supporters of the supposedly "Bolivarian revolution" choose to be blind to the fact that control over free speech, blocking of independent media outlets and definition of opponents as people who damage the "mental health" of the nation, are indicative of a regime that is intrinsically authoritarian in nature. Without the "oxygen of publicity" there can be no basis for checking government action and without this no possible "civil society". Defense of the preconditions of such civil society should be the minimum for anyone who claims concern with liberty or lawful government.


cristian said...

why don't you also talk about the things that the US are doing in the region? what is your opinion about the new military bases that the US will open up in Colombia, right beside Venezuela? What is your opinion about the support that the US has given to the dictators governments in Venezuela in the past?

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your comment Cristian. To begin with, the question of US activity in the region, whatever one thinks of it, gives no excuse for the acts of the Venezuelan government. Secondly, the intervention of the US in Colombia is directed against drug lords and the FARC, the latter of whom have been given overt and covert support by the Venezuelan government. Finally, whilst it is true that the US has supported dictators in the past, in Venezuela and elsewhere, this does not itself give an excuse to dictators in these places today.