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Self-censorship in Venezuela

By John Germany | Reason Over Might

10.12.04 | It's official: the Venezuelan president has, as was expected, signed the gag law (official title: "Ley de Responsabilidad Social en Radio y Televisión") into effect. What's it all about? Under the guise of caring for more "socially responsible" TV and radio programming, the government formulated and passed a law defining in great detail which sorts of transmission are to be allowed and which will not be tolerated.

For instance, with few exceptions, all programmes must be transmitted in the Spanish language; advertising for alcohol, tobacco products, drugs, and games of chance (except for charity) is prohibited; images and sounds depicting violence or sexual content are regulated; every broadcaster has to make available 10 minutes of programming per day to the state; every unencrypted broadcaster must dedicate 1.5 hours of educational programming per day to children, plus 1.5 hours to adolescents; 60% of prime-time programming has to be produced within Venezuela, as must all advertising; radio stations that play music have to play at least 3 hours of Venezuelan music plus 1 hour of Latin American music per day; all stations must play the Venezuelan national anthem daily, and must mention the authors, melody, and lyrics.

The new law provides for savage sanctions against broadcasters found in violation of its articles. This is the case especially for article 29, which is the scorpion's tail: an all-purpose paragraph that can be applied almost at will by a partisan regulator. It determines that any broadcaster promoting, apologising for or inciting to war, changes in the public order or crimes; threatening the security of the state; or broadcasting anonymous messages can be taken off the air for 72 hours. High fines are also imposed and the broadcasting license can be revoked for up to five years. Obviously, Chávez and his pack will have few qualms about interpreting any criticism of their conduct as threatening the security of the state.

As was to be expected, Venezuelan media have begun censoring themselves rather than run the risk of simply being eliminated. Miguel Octavio, in his excellent blog The Devil's Excrement, describes how this process became visible yesterday: Globovision, which to date has been the premier source of live news for many Venezuelans, did not broadcast violent unrest in the centre of Caracas that left several people injured as street vendors confronted the police. Obviously, the news images would have shown violence, which is prohibited between 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.; so rather than risk the wrath of the powers that be, Globovision kept mum. (The news still spread through the Internet and newspapers, though, which are not regulated by the new law. Any bets on how long it will take before this loophole is closed?)

Obviously, what is happening here is very serious indeed. International organizations ranging from Human Rights Watch ("This legislation severely threatens press freedom in Venezuela," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Its vaguely worded restrictions and heavy penalties are a recipe for self-censorship by the press and arbitrariness by government authorities.") to the Inter American Press Association ("What is under discussion is the right of all citizens to be duly informed and not only about what the government wants them to know, as happens in Cuba.") to Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Without Borders said it was "extremely concerned" by a "vaguely-termed" new law about the "social responsibility" of the Venezuelan media that "might be used against those that did not agree with the government.") have criticised the new law, as has Spain's foreign minister Moratinos.

The situation is not pretty. At the moment Venezuelans' hopes rest on the Internet (those that have access to it) and newspapers (as long as they remain relatively free -- we'll ignore threats against and attacks on journalists for the moment). I predict a strong resurge of irony in the months ahead, something like the church service scene in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life".

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