(Aug. 18, 2009) On August 10, 2009, Frank La Rue, who has served since August 2008 as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, expressed concern about a proposed Venezuelan media law that “could be used as a tool for political intimidation” through its inclusion of the concept of “media crimes” and “would seriously curtail press freedom and potentially criminalize legitimate dissent” if adopted as currently formulated. (UN Human Rights Expert Sounds Alarm on Draft Media Laws in Venezuela, UN NEWS CENTRE, Aug 10, 2009, available at http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=31726&Cr=&Cr1=.) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is reportedly urging passage of the legislation, and his Attorney General, Luisa Ortega, has stressed that “'freedom of expression must be limited'” to punish media owners who 'manipulate the news with the purpose of transmitting a false perception of the facts.'” (BLOG: Venezuela's National Assembly Considers New Media Law, AMERICAS QUARTERLY, July 31, 2009, available at http://www.americasquarterly.org/node/813.)
La Rue called upon the National Assembly to incorporate international principles of human rights in deliberating the draft Special Law Against Media Crimes, stating, “[n]o government in the world has the right to silence critics or those who oppose the State with threats of criminal proceedings.” He warned that the draft measures would undermine media pluralism and, as a result, “transparency and debate on matters of public interest that should exist in a democratic society.” (Id.)
A copy of the alleged proposed law appeared in Spanish and in English translation on the website of the Venezuelan newspaper EL UNIVERSAL. (Proyecto de Ley Especial Contra Delitos Mediáticos [in Spanish], EL UNIVERSAL, July 29, 2009, available at http://media.eluniversal.com/2009/07/29/ProyectoLeyEspecialDelitosMediaticos.pdf; Draft Special Law Against Media Crimes [in English], EL UNIVERSAL, Aug. 3, 2009, available at http://english.eluniversal.com/2009/08/03/en_pol_esp_draft-special-law-ag_
03A2581803.shtml.) Article 4 of the document is a definition of media crimes:
Media crimes are the actions or omissions that may be detrimental to the right to timely, accurate, and impartial information, that may endanger social peace, security and independence of the nation, public order, stability of the State institutions, public health or public morality, that may create a feeling of impunity or insecurity and that are committed in the mass media.
Penalties for violation of the draft law's provisions by journalists range from six months to four years. A punishment of two to four years may be given, for example, on conviction of the offense of disseminating false news that seriously disturbs public order, manipulating or distorting the news “thus generating a false perception of the facts or creating a mindset among society” where such actions damage social peace or public order; or failing to provide information on facts or situations where the lack of reporting may harm the constitutional right to information. (Arts. 5, 6, & 9, id.;Will Grant, Venezuela Mulls Tough Media Law, BBC NEWS, July 31, 2009, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8177862.stm.)
However, on August 4, some members of the National Assembly stated in response to criticism of the alleged draft law at home and abroad that no such legislation exists that would deny freedom of expression and punish journalists, “only a discussion around how to combat the 'media dictatorship' and 'media terrorism.'” (Tamara Pearson, Venezuelan National Assembly Discusses Combating Media Terrorism, VENEZUELANALYSIS.COM, Aug. 5, 2009, available at http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4694.) (It may be noted that there is a Cuban website devoted to media terrorism (CubaDebate contra el Terrorísmo Mediático, http://archivo.cubadebate.cu/ (last visited Aug. 12, 2009)).) The legislative debate, according to legislator Manuel Villalba, is over ideas presented to the National Assembly by Attorney General Luisa Diaz, but “there is no consensus around her proposals.” Villalba added, “[a]ll this just confirms that there are media owners who are systematically disseminating false opinions.” (Id.) However, legislator Rosario Pacheco did refer to the draft law, in connection with its definition of media crime. (Id.)
For the last few months, according to news reports, debates and fora have been conducted nationwide on the theme of media terrorism or media dictatorship, and the draft proposed legislation is merely part of what has been called the government's “ongoing campaign to rein in private news organizations.” (AMERICAS QUARTERLY, supra.) On August 2, 2009, moreover, the head of CONATEL, Venezuela's national telecommunications commission, “announced the closure of 34 private radio stations for operating illegally or violating regulations.” (Id.) Another 206 stations may also be axed; decisions on them are pending. In addition, proposed changes to the Telecommunications Law may limit to three per private owner the ownership of broadcast radio and television stations and disallow transfer of broadcast concessions to family or colleagues in the event of the holder's death. (Id.)