Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
A hostile political atmosphere under the government of President Hugo Chavez has fostered a steady decline in press freedom over the past several years, and that trend continued in 2006. State initiatives have eroded the influence of private media, in which the previous dominance of pro-opposition outlets has been dwindling. Among other actions, the government has enacted legislation prohibiting the broadcast of certain material, intimidated and denied access to private media, attempted to shut down pro-opposition outlets, and harassed journalists employed at such outlets.
The legal environment for the press remains poor. The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, signed in December 2004, contains vaguely worded restrictions that can be used to severely limit freedom of expression. For example, the law forbids graphic depictions of violence between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. on both television and radio. In March 2005, the penal code was revised to make insulting the president punishable by 6 to 30 months in prison. Furthermore, comments that could “expose another person to contempt or public hatred” are subject to one to three years in prison as well as a severe fine. Inaccurate reporting that “disturbs the public peace” carries a prison sentence of two to five years. In January 2006, a judge issued a gag order barring the media from reporting on the investigation into the high-profile murder of prosecutor Danilo Anderson, including descriptions of the key witness’s credibility problems. At least three journalists were convicted and sentenced for defamation in 2006, with several others under investigation.
Government cadenas (announcements) require that broadcasters cease regular programming to transmit official messages; 182 such cadenas were issued in 2006. Independent journalists complained that a lack of access impeded their reporting; they were often denied entry to military ceremonies and other official events that state media representatives were allowed to attend. In June, Chavez announced his intention to review the licenses of private broadcasters. The year’s most dramatic media event occurred on December 28, when the authorities announced that the license of RCTV, a prominent pro-opposition network, would not be renewed and the channel would go off the air by May 2007. The decision was decried by media watchdogs, who questioned the decision’s motivation, legality, and lack of transparency. In May, the governor of Bolivar state called for the eviction of the newspaper El Correo del Caroni, which had been critical of his administration; in June, the paper’s power was cut for five hours
Direct assaults on the media continued to occur regularly in 2006. Local media watchdog Instituto Prensa y Sociedad issued eight alerts throughout the year regarding aggression against the television channel Globovision alone. Three journalists were murdered, including a photographer who captured his killer, a policeman, in one of his last photos. Many other journalists reported beatings and threats. Tension rose throughout the preelection period, with both opposition and government reporters facing assaults by ideological opponents. In the days leading up to the election, Chavez warned that private stations would be closed if they violated bans on the release of exit poll data. In a related incident, prominent congresswoman Iris Varela called on Chavez supporters to be ready to seize control of private media if they announced an opposition victory. The European Union reported that while both pro-opposition and pro-government media reflected strong partisan tendencies throughout their campaign coverage, Chavez dominated “institutional publicity” by a margin of 19 to 1.
The government controls four national television stations, a national radio network, and a wire service, all of which have benefited from budget increases. Such government-run stations operate alongside multiple private television and radio stations in the country. Local and regional media are particularly dependent on government advertising revenue, leaving them vulnerable to economic retaliation for criticism. The president has a weekly television show (scheduled to switch to a nightly radio program in 2007) and exercises his power to preempt programming to ensure extensive coverage of government announcements in private media. In November, the mayor of the city of Maturin imposed a “publicity ban” on several newspapers and radio stations. There are no government restrictions on the internet, which had over three million users (nearly 13 percent of the population) by the end of 2006.