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12/13/04 - VENEZUELA PRESS LAW - 2004-12-13

A new law signed by President Hugo Chavez will allow the Venezuelan government to censor news reports. The law's declared purpose is to restrict depictions of sex and violence on television. But the law has generated great protest from Venezuelans who believe it has clear ulterior purposes. Under one widely-criticized provision of the law, Venezuelan news media cannot present reports that government officials say would "endanger national security or incite disruption of public order" or that officials say are "contrary to truthful and impartial information."

The vagueness of the language empowers Venezuela's media regulatory agency to suspend radio and television programs it doesn't like. José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times newspaper, "This law is so vaguely defined, with so many clauses and so broad that it is like a loose-fitting strait-jacket on a patient, one that can be easily tightened when necessary."

The Inter American Press Association calls the new Venezuelan press law a "clear interference in news media content and a restriction of the work of journalists to report and provide opinion, under the pretext of promoting programming that protects children and adolescents."

President Chavez has made it clear that for him, the law's purpose is entirely political. The law, he says, "is now beginning to liberate the people of Venezuela from the dictatorship of the private media owners."

Mr. Chavez apparently envisions an end to both a free press in Venezuela and any criticism of his authoritarian tendencies. Miro Quesada, editor of the Peruvian daily newspaper El Comercio, put it best at a forum on Venezuela's new law. "Let’s not deceive ourselves," he said. "What is under discussion is the right of all citizens to be duly informed and not only about what the government wants them to know, as happens in Cuba. Is that what Venezuelans want? I am sure it is not."

Freedom of speech and of the press is a fundamental right and the foundation of a democratic society. Where the government controls news and public discussion, corruption and repression are the inevitable result. That is why President Chavez' new press law is bad news for the people of Venezuela.