August 25, 2008
During an election year, new laws threaten to make journalism a risky business.
Faced with an election year, the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been increasing controls to important bastions of the private sector, approving laws that promote the centralization of power and spending large amounts on purchases for Venezuela's military. The government has also increased pressures on the media and journalists.
In recent months, Chávez has used the state television network for political propaganda. According to independent journalists, watchdog groups and the owners of media outlets, the government has also used the military to interfere with radio stations that oppose candidates backed by the government. Members of the secret service police, known as DISIP, have arrested and detained several journalists handling information considered delicate by the authorities.
According to experts and analysts, the Venezuelan government is increasingly resorting to the use of coercive measures against national and local media outlets, pressuring them to publish information that favors the official party candidates.
A controversial telecommunications bill put forth by Chávez will soon be approved by the National Assembly; awarding absolute power to the executive branch to order the blackout of information for reasons of national security. The law permitting Chávez to control information at his discretion has already been approved by the Supreme Court.
According to the new legislation, Chávez will be the only one who can order the suspension of any type of ''transmission, emission or reception of signals, signs, writings, images, sounds or information of any nature'' by invoking the need to protect public order and national security.
The official government-controlled media employs more than 400 radio stations, 72 television stations and 18 newspapers to promote both local and national candidates from the official government party, noted Antonio Pasquali, a professor of the Central University of Venezuela and former consultant for communications to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The legal and political pressures could seriously compromise freedom of speech in Venezuela and turn journalism into a very risky business, according to Carlos Correa, the director of Espacio Público, a nongovernmental organization that monitors Venezuelan media outlets.
''From this moment forward, we are going to have more risks in regards to a greater violence against journalists and media outlets, and a greater restriction of the freedom of expression,'' said Correa.
Journalists have reacted to the increased controls by launching a campaign this week to denounce the unconstitutionality of many of the laws approved by Chávez recently; especially those affecting their profession, said Roger Santodomingo, the director of the National College of Journalists.
''They are wanting to take Venezuela towards a socialist government where only one voice is heard. A socialist model that was not accepted on the past December 2nd,'' stated Santodomingo during a press conference on Thursday.
Gonzalo Marroquín, the director of Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre and chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information of the Inter American Press Association, denounced acts of hostility against the Venezuelan media.
Marroquín said Chávez has attacked the dailies El Nacional and El Universal, declaring them as defenders of interests that are contrary to the nation; after both newspapers published headlines about the recent nationalization of the cement industry and the 26 laws passed by Chávez under the invocation of special powers.
The IAPS also expressed concern for what it deemed use of excessive force by the military and the ''possible discriminatory procedures'' used by the National Telecommunications Commission last week, in shutting down radio stations Rumbera Network 101.5 FM and Llanera 91.3 FM, based in San Juan de los Morros, the capital of the state of Guarico.
The closures with the use of military muscle was classified by various watch groups as a retaliatory measure that was grossly disproportionate.
''It is the collection of a political debt, because there are other radio stations functioning [without all the permits]. There were troubles because supposedly we didn't play some spots from [Communication and Information Minister] Willian Lara,'' said Arturo Camero, the director of Radio Llanera which was closed by a contingent of 200 soldiers.