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 over the past several years under the government of President Hugo Chavez has fostered a steady decline in press freedom that continued in 2007. The major event of the year was the government’s refusal to renew the broadcast license of the popular opposition-aligned television station Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). In general, state initiatives have gradually eroded the influence of private media and pro-opposition outlets. Among other actions, the government has enacted legislation prohibiting the broadcast of certain material, intimidated and denied access to private media, and harassed journalists and media outlets that are critical of the government.
The legal environment for the press remains poor. While the law guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, 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 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. on both television and radio. In March 2005, the penal code was revised to make insulting the president a crime punishable by six to 30 months in prison. Furthermore, comments that could “expose another person to contempt or public hatred” constitute a crime punishable by 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. Dozens of legal proceedings against media workers and outlets remained open in 2007, and there were several convictions, including of the opposition daily Tal Cual, which was fined some $75,000 for seemingly innocuous comments in a satirical piece that mentioned Chavez’s daughter. However, in December, Venezuelans rejected by a narrow margin a package of constitutional amendments that would have given the president greater power to declare states of emergency and eliminated the requirement that freedom of information be maintained during these periods. Despite weeks of student-led protests and denunciations by numerous human rights and media groups, RCTV was forced off the air on May 27. Media watchdogs questioned the decision’s motivation, legality, and lack of transparency. In a survey by regional watchdog Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), 30 percent of journalists declared that the station’s closure would make them think twice about publishing certain information.
Direct assaults on the media continued to occur regularly in 2007. Political polarization remained high, and numerous journalists were injured by either supporters or opponents of the government during street protests, which peaked during the periods preceding the May RCTV closure and the December constitutional referendum vote. One of the only remaining local opposition television stations, Globovision, remained a primary target for physical aggression, lawsuits, the denial of access to information, verbal attacks, and threats to cancel its license. A survey by IPYS revealed that 56 percent of journalists had suffered some sort of verbal or physical threat or attack during the previous year. The state does little to nothing to discourage such harassment. The same survey noted that only 9 percent of reporters were inclined to formally complain about threats, attacks, and harassment. In May, prominent government ally Eva Golinger unveiled a list of 33 journalists who had participated in cultural exchange programs financed by the U.S. State Department. Along with some congressional allies, she called for investigations into whether the reporters were engaged in espionage. However, even some government supporters, notably National Assembly president Desiree Santos and former vice president Jose Vicente Rangel, acknowledged that the accusations were extreme. In general, 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 addition to fostering the proliferation of community-based media outlets, the government controls five national television stations, a national radio network, and a wire service, all of which have benefited from budget increases. Government-run stations operate alongside a shrinking number of private television and radio stations. The country’s leading newspapers are privately owned and most identify with the opposition, but they are subject to threats and violence by the government and its supporters, sometimes leading to self-censorship. Local and regional media are particularly dependent on government advertising revenue, leaving them vulnerable to economic retaliation for criticism. According to responses to the IPYS study, fear of offending the government and a reluctance to antagonize ad buyers were the two primary reasons for a high level of editorial-directed self-censorship. The president has a weekly television show and exercises his power to preempt regular programming to ensure extensive coverage of government cadenas (announcements) in private media. During the run-up to the constitutional referendum, the local Media Monitoring Group analyzed time spent by media in discussing the two alternatives that either rejected or supported the referendum and found that while some private stations were quite lopsided against the referendum, state outlets were even more dramatically tilted in favor. There are no government restrictions on the internet, which was used by about 20 percent of the population in 2007.