The National Assembly has just ratified a new blow to freedom of expression and information in Venezuela by approving two bills amending the Organic Law on Telecommunications (Lotel) and the Social Responsibility in Radio, TV and Electronic Media Law (Resortemec) at the government’s bidding on 20 December.
Further harm results from the adoption of the national sovereignty law that will impose severe restrictions on national and international NGOs. In all, more than a dozen laws are being rush through the outgoing parliament, in which the opposition is not represented, without awaiting the 5 January installation of the new parliament elected on 26 September, which reflects all the current political tendencies.
The National Assembly has also curtailed its own powers both now and during the next parliamentary term by passing a law on 17 December that empowers the president to govern by decree, without referring to the National Assembly, for 18 months.
Officially, President Hugo Chávez requested these special powers in order to deal with a state of emergency results from recent heavy rain but these powers, which have been granted three times already in the past, did not need to be maintained for such a long time. A significant guarantee would have been given if they had expired on 5 January. How will they be used after the emergency resulting from the rain and flooding is over?
As amended, the Resortemec Law was promulgated today and will now apply to websites as well as radio and TV stations. It provides for a heavy fine, suspension or (in the case of a second offence) definitive closure for media that:
1 – Incite or promote hate and intolerance for religious or political reasons, on the basis of a gender difference or because of racism or xenophobia.
2 – Incite or promote criminal activity.
3 – Engage in war propaganda.
4 – Cause panic or disturb public order.
5 – Discredit legitimately constituted authorities.
6 – Incite murder.
7 – Incite or promote non-respect for the laws in force.
Points 1 and 6 are admissible and valid in any legislation. Point 3 is also admissible, but will presumably not be applied to the government’s often bellicose propaganda. Points 2, 4 and 5 represent a major threat to freedom of expression and information because they are too broadly and vaguely defined. Point 5 regarding the “legitimately constituted authorities” also concerns the next National Assembly, which was elected on 26 September. One positive aspect of the new Resortemec Law is that it no longer contains the controversial provision for a single Internet access point.
The Lotel reinforces state control over broadcast frequencies and prohibits any foreign investment in over-the-air radio and TV broadcasting, community broadcasting and national radio and TV production. It also reduces the maximum period of a broadcast frequency concession from 25 to 15 years.
We hope that, on the basis of the principle that laws cannot be retroactive, there is no intention of applying this provision to Globovisión, the only over-the-air TV station currently criticizing the government. Globovisión is already subject to several disciplinary proceedings.
Our analysis of these laws concurs with those of the relevant UN and OAS entities. The same goes for the law on the defence of political sovereignty and national self-determination, which will deprive NGOs of much of their external resources and subject their activities to strict government supervision. This future law, billed as a weapon against “foreign interference,” absurdly assumes that NGOs aim to destabilize the country when they are just exercising civil society oversight and the freedom of assembly. It represents another blow to fundamental constitutional rights and to the 1999 constitution, now betrayed by its promoter.
Venezuela is sadly the exception in South America. New communication laws that have been or are in the process of being adopted in other countries in the region are trying to promote more pluralism and decentralization, and a balance between the different kinds of media. This is the case with Argentina’s SCA law, which we support. This is also the case with Ecuador’s communication law, although some of its provisions about content pose a problem.
Other laws are due to be adopted in 2011 in Bolivia, Uruguay, which already has an exemplary community radio law and perhaps Brazil. Although accompanied by varying degrees of tension between government and leading privately-owned media, a democratic and pluralistic debate is under way almost everywhere. But not in Venezuela, where a series of gag laws are helping to establish a presidential monopoly of public communication.
Photo : AFP