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The media in Venezuela: Inciting self-censorship

From The Economist

Mar 10th 2005 | CARACAS | HUGO CHÁVEZ, Venezuela's leftist president, has long complained of a “media conspiracy” against him. He has a point. Most of the country's privately owned television channels and newspapers enthusiastically joined a three-year campaign to unseat him—though they were also obliged, by law, to carry Mr Chávez's frequent and lengthy speeches to the nation. They backed an abortive coup in 2002, failing to cover a military-civilian counter-coup that restored Mr Chávez until it could no longer be ignored. Later that year, media bosses played a leading role in promoting a two-month general strike.

Last August, Mr Chávez finally saw off the opposition, winning a recall referendum. He now exercises personal control over all of the country's main institutions including the armed forces, the state oil monopoly—and the state radio and television stations. His promised “revolution” is at hand, now avowedly socialist and allied with Fidel Castro's Cuba. So, too, is revenge against his opponents in the media.

The government's cure for media bias is worse than the disease. The combined firepower of the legislature, judiciary, the public prosecutor and even the army is being deployed. Radio and television are now subject to a “social responsibility” law, purportedly aimed at protecting children from inappropriate programmes. It allows the government to impose heavy fines and/or revoke broadcasting licences for such offences as information “contrary to national security”. It has been criticised by international press-freedom watchdogs and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The commission stated that the law's “vague terminology” and “potentially excessive penalties” could intimidate journalists and media companies into failing to report matters of public interest.

The government accuses the commission of bias, and of meddling in internal affairs (which is its job). Venezuelans still get a range of news and views. But there are indeed signs of self-censorship. Two of the government's fiercest media critics—Napoleón Bravo and Marta Colomina—have lost their jobs as presenters of morning television shows. Mr Bravo faces charges of “inciting hatred”. Three other journalists also face charges, one for “inciting military rebellion” after she broadcast a video alleged to be of Cubans inside a barracks. General Francisco Usón, a former minister in Mr Chávez's government, is serving five years in jail for remarks he made on television.

Worse may be to come. A new penal code, awaiting Mr Chávez's signature, would increase the penalty for defamation to 12 months in jail and eliminate the presumption of innocence. To “cause panic” by spreading “false information” by any means, including e-mail, would carry a sentence of up to five years.

The media are taking legal advice—and more care. The latter, many concede, is no bad thing: they have often been quick to publish unsubstantiated stories that put the government in a bad light. But “imposing a straitjacket on the media is not the way to promote democracy,” says José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based body.

Up to now, the foreign press has faced little or no harassment. After the 2002 coup, foreign correspondents briefly became heroes to chavistas (since they carried on reporting during the local media blackout). No longer: last month Andrés Izarra, the information minister, launched a tirade against the American press in particular. He accused several journalists (including The Economist's correspondent) of forming part of a campaign by George Bush's government to isolate Venezuela. Mr Izarra suggested that the State Department was paying for anti-Chávez coverage. He admitted he had no evidence of this, but added: “Don't be surprised if later on we find the documents.” Were he an opposition journalist, such remarks would land him in jail for defamation.

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