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The "gag" law in Venezuela

By Daniel Duquenal

01.12.04 | Last week the chavista faction of the Venezuelan National Assembly approved a new law to regulate content in the airborne media. Listening this morning on TV at Nicolas Maduro in the RCTV interview show "La Entrevista" one does realize that this law soon will not be enough. What Maduro and many of his chavista friends really want is a Media that looks like the state TV, VTV, uninformative, tacky and dedicated to the glories of the revolution. But I digress.

The fact is that the excuses advanced to promote that "gag" law could be dealt perfectly well either with already existing laws, or by a more limited law. Protecting children from pornography and violence though TV is useless in Venezuela. Just going out in the street is enough for them to see violence: poverty, dirt, disorder, crime and what not are obvious enough to already traumatize any child, even more if that child lives in a barrio. Not to mention that the state wants to assume the parental obligations of controlling what the child will watch on TV, which by itself is unacceptable.

At any rate, a simple ban on beer and tobacco adds during day time and early evening schedule, coupled with a ban on trashy soap operas and tacky game shows at the same hours would have sufficed. But the ban includes any news that could show violence. Thus the real reason behind the "gag" law: block the transmission of news that could make the government look bad, news such as riots, public employees on strike, repressed marches, etc... That could still be worked around if the organism to supervise such "violence" were to be a perfectly independent body. But it will not be so, and the Chavez administration and cronies elsewhere will be in charge. The very least that we can expect is self-imposed censorship, as it can be alrady seen in Venevision.

Word is out already of this impending first step in curtailing the freedom of information in Venezuela. Tal Cual reported for example yesterday that Rodriguez Zapatero asked Chavez to suspend the application of the "gag" rule. Quite an interesting revelation when one sees how that trip to Spain turned out to be.

But finally the Human Rights Watch page, HRW, as come up with its first official condemnation of the "gag" law. I quote a section:

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the proposed law contains loosely worded rules on incitement of breaches of public order that could penalize broadcasters' legitimate expression of political views. If found responsible for the infractions, a television or radio station could be ordered to suspend transmissions for up to 72 hours, and have its broadcasting license revoked on a second offense.

These provisions violate international standards protecting free expression. Because of the importance of allowing a full and free public debate, the government must only impose restrictions on grounds of incitement where there is a clear relation between the speech in question and a specific criminal act.

Under the guise of protecting children from crude language, sexual content, and violence, the proposed law would also subject adults to restrictive and puritanical viewing standards. Several of the norms are ill-defined and subjective, and stations that infringe them would be subject to tough penalties.

But HRW has been monitoring Venezuela for quite a while. On the "gag" law and freedom of the press it already had a few choice words to say in the past (a letter to Chavez, a complete report on violence against the press and freedom of expression in Venezuela, and a specific communique about the lack of protection to journalists in Venezuela).

HRW has clearly been watching, and this does not limit itself to press and information question. Human rights in general are monitored. The judicial system modifications have been criticized extensively. These can be seen in the Spanish language articles pages too.

And HRW cannot be accused of partiality. Not only it has condemned abuses made from the other side, but today's front page of HRW lists among many items: the report on Chile recognizing torture as a state policy, murder sentences against women in Texas, the Darfur (again), Israel and its purchase of Caterpillar tractors, a few items about Iraq, etc...

The world is not fooled by the nature of Chavez regime, no matter how many elections it claims to have won.

To close, Vivanco's words: "Imposing a straitjacket on the media is not the way to promote democracy". Nuf' said!

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