VENEZUELA: ARE THE MEDIA REALLY INDEPENDENT?
Report from Sumate.org
1. Since President Chávez took power in 1998 he has taken aim at Venezuela 's privately held media because he believes that they are his main enemies. He has referred to the four main private television stations as "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" for the critical stance they've taken regarding his government's policies. Through government-sponsored pressure tactics aimed at restricting the television media's freedom of expression, President Chávez has attempted, successfully in several instances, to suppress public affairs and political talk shows and interview programs which were critical of his government. For example, the TV station Venevisión, which together with another TV station, RCTV, are viewed by 80% of the population, has cancelled its daytime opinion and news programs. Televen has cancelled the opinion programs anchored by some controversial journalists such as Martha Colomina and Cesar Miguel Rondón and some radio stations have followed suit.
2. For the last two years, in order to curb dissenting views and opinions, the regulatory body which oversees the broadcasting industry has initiated numerous punitive procedures, including levying sanctions and fines, against television station. The fines range from the equivalent of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, compliance with which could put any television station out of business. The government itself has defined these procedures as a way to pressure the TV stations into not broadcasting opinions against the government.
3. On December 7, 2004 the National Assembly passed the Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law (or Ley Resorte ). The new law increases State control over radio and television programming and includes measures which go against accepted international norms in the field. These include stipulations in Articles 6 and 7, which limit the broadcasting of images and sounds based on concepts that are so ambiguous that stations have no way of knowing at what point they are breaking the law since such stipulations are subject to the arbitrary interpretation of the regulatory agency.
4. The law establishes within the regulatory agency a Directorate for Social Responsibility, which is composed of eleven people, whose main function is to oversee compliance with the provisions of the law and to impose sanctions on offenders. Sanctions include taking cultural and educational programming off the air, fines, the suspension of business licenses which allow stations to broadcast, and revoking their concessions. In practice, the Directorate is nothing less than a media censoring agency.
5. Of the Directorate for Social Responsibility's eleven members, seven are designated by the Government in representation of State agencies and none represents the broadcasting industry. This means that radio and television stations have no direct recourse within the Directorate to plead their cases or to appeal sanctions that might be levied upon them. In addition, the Directorate's chairman is the Director General of the regulatory agency, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), and thus a presidential appointee.
6. A number of international organizations have expressed their opinions and concerns about this law. Human Rights Watch, through its Executive Director for the Americas , José Miguel Vivanco, has sharply questioned the law, stating that "putting straitjackets on the media is not the right way to promote democracy."
7. The Inter-American Press Society (SIP) has stated that the law creates mechanisms via which the State can exercise control over what the media can publish or broadcast. In light of this situation, the SIP has asked the Venezuelan government to repeal the law on the grounds that it contravenes basic principles of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
8. The international NGO, Reporters Without Borders, has issues a communiqué in which it expressed its deep concern recordings " the enactment of a law whose scope for interpretation is so broad that it could be used against the media that do not share the government's point of view".
9. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has stated that "The use of vague terminology in the law, in addition to the possibility of sanctions that could be applied excessively, can result in the intimidation of the media and reporters, thereby limiting the flow of information on issues of public interest".
10. Finally, the Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law allows the government to control program scheduling and content in the broadcast media thus, according to experts, putting a straitjacket on freedom of expression.