Venezuelan Lawmakers Should Reject Draft "Media Crimes" Law

Washington

Freedom House is deeply concerned about a new draft "media crimes" law in Venezuela and urges the National Assembly to reject it as an affront to the universal right to freedom of expression.

Public prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz introduced the draft legislation yesterday under which journalists and any citizen could be imprisoned for up to four years for using media outlets to provide "false information" that could "harm the interests of the state." If passed, the law would violate Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 13 of the American Convention, as well as article 52 of the Venezuelan Constitution which guarantees freedom of opinion, expression and the right to disseminate information without censorship.

“This restrictive draft law shows an unjustified need on the part of the Venezuelan state to defend itself from its own citizens and their opinions,” said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "This represents a new low for Venezuela, which is already one of Latin America's most restrictive environments for the press, second only to Cuba."

If approved, the law would allow the government to penalize anyone who distributes information that the government deems to be factually incorrect or biased, as well as any media outlet that fails to report on topics regarded as vital to the public interest. Media managers who refuse to reveal the identity of writers when requested by the prosecutor's office would face up to two years in prison.

Tensions between the Venezuelan government and media are high, following a series of provocative acts by the administration of President Hugo Chavez.  The government recently banned broadcast outlets from airing an advertisement that opposed a bill that would threaten private property rights. Chavez has personally threatened to close the opposition TV station Globovision and more than 240 radio stations risk closure for allegedly failing to register with the government.

Freedom House is concerned that the draft law's broad definition of "media crimes" could lead to even greater self-censorship in Venezuela, which has seen a marked decline in freedom of expression in recent years. The country's media climate is characterized by intimidation, including assaults on journalists by armed, pro-government groups and strong anti-media rhetoric from the government. In addition, the government uses public funds to establish news outlets and has the authority to control the content of broadcast media under a 2004 law.

Venezuela is ranked Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2009 and Partly Free in the 2009 edition of Freedom of the World, Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties.

To learn more about Venezuela, read:

Freedom in the World 2009: Venezuela
Freedom of the Press 2008: Venezuela
Undermining Democracy: Venezuela

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Venezuela since 1972.

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