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Vaguely worded bill will tighten Venezuelan controls on broadcast media, Internet

Under new control: Opposition TV station Globovision's employees work at the main studio of the TV station in Caracas December 10, 2010. Venezuela's government has taken control of a fifth of the shares in Globovision, a sign of mounting pressure on the opposition television network opposed to President Hugo Chavez.

An amendment to the Radio and TV Social Responsibility Law (Ley Resorte) – submitted to parliament on 9 December and due to be adopted this week at the Venezuelan president’s insistence – will increase the severity of the penalties for offending broadcast media and make them applicable to online media as well.

President Hugo Chávez has asked the outgoing parliament, which he controls, to rush adoption of the amendment as he already has with a proposed international cooperation law.

The incoming parliament, elected on September 26 but not due to begin sitting until January 5, will include opposition parties. As such, it would be better able to debate the pros and cons of these bills. "Is it because he totally dominates the current parliament that Chávez wants these bills passed at all cost before Christmas? Everything suggests that he is trying to defy the electorate’s will in this way," Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said.

The original version of the Ley Resorte already encourages media self-censorship by defining offences in a very general and convoluted manner that is open to all kinds of interpretation. The new version develops this flaw to the point of caricature.

It would, for example, ban use of radio, TV or Internet to transmit messages that “could incite crimes against the president” or “could constitute a media manipulation aimed at stirring up unrest or disturbing public order.” It would also ban messages that “could be contrary to the nation’s security” or “designed to defy the legitimately installed authorities.” Such a level of vagueness would pervert any possibility of fair judicial implementation, according to RSF.

The penalties are also much harsher in the new version. The first two offences mentioned above (inciting a crime against the president and media manipulation) would be punishable by a fine of up to 10 per cent of the broadcaster’s or Internet service provider’s gross annual income or a 72-hour suspension (which could be permanent for repeat offenders). The fine for a broadcaster (or ISP) that refuses to cede space for educational or cultural messages is increased from 1 to 2 per cent of the gross annual income and now also applies to refusing to carry the national anthem.

A fine of 3 to 4 per cent of gross annual revenue will be payable by broadcasters and online media that transmit content of a violent nature at the wrong time of day. Instead of 7am-7pm, the hours for content fit for any age group would henceforth be 6am-9pm, while the timetable for content suitable for “supervised” age groups would run from 9pm to midnight.

The official goal of protecting minors is praiseworthy in principle but these restrictions are excessive for radio and TV broadcasters and would appear to be impossible to implement on websites.

According to article 212 of the law’s amended version, “the state will create an interconnection or access point for Internet Service Providers with the aim of regulating traffic within or into Venezuela in order to more effectively use the country’s networks because of the sector’s strategic nature.”

RSF asked, “Does this 'access point' mean the introduction of a state monopoly of Internet access and regulation? Will ISPs be obliged to provide information about activities that are subject to regulation? In other words, will such a mechanism open the way to Internet content filtering at the expense of online freedom of information?”

This amendment’s intentions are being questioned all the more because President Chávez is posed to ask parliament today to grant him the power to govern by decree, without going through the legislature, in order to be able to deal with a humanitarian crisis resulting from the recent heavy rains.

It is essential that this emergency power should be strictly limited to the current crisis and should stop when the new parliament is installed. If it does not, it would constitute a flagrant violation of the separation of powers, RSF said.

Date posted: December 14, 2010 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 142