Venezuela mulls law to 'muzzle' media

by Nina Negron, AFP

A media committee in Venezuela's parliament is set to begin Tuesday studying a draft law that, if approved, could jail anyone publishing comments that authorities consider a threat to national interests.

The controversial text will be weighed just days after President Hugo Chavez's government revoked the licenses of 32 radio stations and two local television stations "to democratize the radio-electric spectrum."

The moves were slammed by critics of the firebrand leftist leader and others as a coordinated crackdown on media challenging the president's image and policies, and as signs that freedom of expression is being muzzled.

"This massive closure of mainly opposition media is dangerous for the future of democratic debate in Venezuela and is motivated by the government's desire to silence dissent," the Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Two years ago, the government closed down RCTV, the country's most popular private television network whose news coverage was overtly anti-Chavez.

Journalists from the radio and television broadcasters shuttered on Saturday have been holding protests in Caracas that continued on Monday.

One of the radio networks affected, CNB, shifted its programs to the Internet, and also took to blaring them out of loudspeakers in a public square in the capital.

Another 240 radio stations and 45 television stations are on the blacklist of the broadcast regulator Conatel and could also lose their licenses.

The draft law being considered has similarly created an uproar among media and rights groups.

The proposed bill would make it a crime to disseminate information deemed "false or manipulative," "prejudicial to the interests of the state" or a threat to "public morality" or "mental health."

Violators could be jailed for up to four years if convicted.

"The media have to assume the consequences of their acts," said Information Minister Blanca Eekhout. "If they commit a crime, they must be punished."

The president of the parliamentary media committee, Rosario Pacheco, told AFP that the text was only an outline for now, and that the public could be consulted before it was put before lawmakers for debate and a vote.

Detractors, though, call the text a "muzzle law." They noted that Chavez supporters dominate the parliament and pass bills endorsed by the president, who in any case also can rule by decree.

"Merely presenting, merely mentioning a media crimes law has an immediate intimidating effect," said Carlos Correa, head of Espacio Publico, a group fighting for the defense of liberty of expression.

CNB chief Nelson Belfort said Chavez's government was aiming to establish "a communication hegemony" with the law.

The text "is not compatible with freedom of expression in Venezuela," agreed Gregorio Salazar, secretary general of the National Press Workers' Union.

article originally published at AFP.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey