Press advocacy group says Chávez worsens censorship

The Inter American Press Association has condemned the “worsening of censorship of the free flow of information on the Internet” and what it called “the marked setback to freedom of the press and of expression in general” in Venezuela with the legislature passing reforms to the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media and the Telecommunications Organic Law.

The two amendments were adopted in an extraordinary session of the national assembly and are expected to enter into force shortly with their being signed into law by President Hugo Chávez and their publication in the official gazette.

“There cannot remain any doubt,” declared the organization’s president, Gonzalo Marroquín, “that we are seeing a serious act of connivance of the branches of government to deny Venezuelan citizens two fundamental guarantees that democracy demand — the right to freedom of expression and due respect for the free flow of information.”

Marroquín, editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala, newspaper Prensa Libre, said that since the Law on Social Responsibility was enacted in 2004, on the excuse of protecting children’s rights, it has been used to go after journalists and shut down news media.

He added, “Now, once again, with the new rules for the Internet, among fines for service providers and the requirement that users not write anonymously or touch on issues that the government might not like, we are witnessing a deep and generalized censorship of news content and personal communications which goes against journalists’ and media’s right to publish and amounts to contempt of the public’s right to communicate freely.”

The amendment to the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media will require media and Internet service providers to censor, block or at least filter information that contravenes some of its rules. Among these are those in Article 27 stipulating that “online media service providers shall set up mechanisms that enable restriction, without delay, of dissemination of messages” which, for example, “encourage anxiety among the citizenry,” “upset public order,” “ignore the authorities,” or “incite homicide.”

Similarly, the law makes news media, among others, responsible for any messages that incite to hatred, justify crime, bring about political or religious intolerance or fail to recognize the authorities. Offenders will be fined between 50 and 200 tax units and those in charge of online media that break the law will be fined up to 4 percent of the gross revenue prior to the violation.

The new legislation makes a criminal offense any information or criticism that the authorities regard as contempt or offensive or that incites to infringe official rulings. Among other ambiguities is the prohibition to remain anonymous on the Internet, a violation of users’ right to privacy.

The chairman of the organization’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Texas, said that in addition to being detrimental to the public through this “stiffening of censorship of the free flow of information on the Internet” the amendment of the Telecommunications Organic Law shows how President Chávez “is insisting on his ultimate aim of obtaining his sought-after communications hegemony, a country where he arrogates to himself the monopoly of truth and criticism.”

“Chávez,” Rivard added, “will be responsible before history for his advocacy of censorship and silence, which will result in a marked setback for freedom of the press and of expression year after year in the country.”

The amendment declares telecommunications activities to be of “public service or interest,” which will enable the government to have greater regulatory authority over the electronic media that the government often declares especially at times of crisis or emergencies.

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