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Chávez's war on media continues, say IFEX members

The Venezuelan authorities have revoked the broadcast licences of 34 private radio and TV stations and proposed new media laws that would expand pro-government media and suppress dissent, say Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), the Inter American Press Association (IPYS), Observatorio Latinoamericano para la Libertad de Expresión (OLA) and other IFEX members.

Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello, who heads the telecommunications agency, announced the decision to force the 32 radio and two television stations off the air on 31 July. He denied the government is trying to punish critics. The stations are accused of failing to demonstrate that they had broadcasting licences, reports IPYS.

Venezuela's telecommunications agency's decision to act against the stations set off an outcry from IFEX members and other rights activists, who contend that Chávez is trying to gradually push aside critical voices. They note that more than 200 other stations are under investigation for allegedly not being properly licensed.

"This is the most important curb on freedom of expression ever seen in Venezuela," said Carlos Correa, the head of Espacio Público, an NGO that defends free speech. "This is without precedent in a period of democracy," he added.

One of the vociferously anti-Chávez television channels that remains on air, Globovisión, is facing multiple investigations that could shut it down and has been the target of attacks.

Tensions ran high at Globovisión's studios on 3 August as dozens of government supporters, riding motorcycles and waving the flags of a radical pro-Chávez party, stormed the station and set off tear gas, report IPYS, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI).

The closures and attack came on the heels of a government announcement that it intended to "democratise" Venezuela's media, report IAPA, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other IFEX members. Attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz presented a bill to the national assembly on 30 July providing for severe punishments - including jail sentences of up to four years - for "media crimes".

Journalists and broadcasters who "harm the interests of the state," "cause panic" or "disturb social peace" could face four years in jail, as well as those who distribute "false" information or "manipulate" news.

The bill would also punish those who refuse to reveal information or the identity of reporters, or deliberately omit a report - jeopardising the principle of the confidentiality of journalists' sources, says RSF.

"The Venezuelan authorities are taking another step in the wrong direction here," said IPI. "At a time when governments are looking to scrap prison sentences for media related offences, the Chávez administration is introducing a raft of new measures."

Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on free expression, said he was especially concerned that the draft laws "could be used as a tool for political intimidation, which may lead to the criminalisation of dissent and criticism."

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