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Newly-passed education law threatens media freedom

Venezuela National Assembly Passes Media-Threatening Education Bill as Demonstrators Attack Journalists Outside

IPI Disappointed at Passing of Bill, Urges Respect for Journalists' Rights

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 14 August 2009 - Venezuela's National Assembly passed on Thursday a controversial new education law that further damages the country's already-deteriorating media freedom climate.

As deputies voted, pro-government demonstrators outside the National Assembly reportedly assaulted journalists covering the events.

The draft "Law on Education" (Ley Orgánico de Educación), which will replace the current law of 1980, makes the teaching of a "critical and responsible interpretation of the messages of the mass media" compulsory, while expanding worrying provisions already contained in the 1980 law.

The new law stipulates that the media must "fulfill informative, formative and recreational functions that contribute to the development of the values and principles established in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and (the Draft Law on Education)," and that media content must be orientated in accordance with this.

It also contains oppressive provisions contained in the 1980 law, such as prohibition of content that could, among other things, cause "indiscipline," "deform language," or "threaten the mental or physical health of the people."

In contrast to the old law, however, the new legislation specifies that media organisations breaching these conditions could find their publications or activities suspended immediately.

As IPI noted in a 13 August press release, the language of the new law sounds alarmingly similar to that contained in a legislative proposition presented by Venezuela's attorney-general at the end of July threatening jail terms of up to four years for journalists who "harm the interests of the state," "cause panic" or "disturb social peace" - all offences labelled
as "media crimes."

The new Law on Education has stirred controversy since the education minister presented it on 29 July, culminating in pro- and anti-law demonstrations outside the National Assembly in Caracas on Thursday.

At least two teams of journalists covering the events have reported being attacked by pro-government demonstrators.

Members of the militant group 'La Piedrita,' loyal to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,' allegedly attacked one team of reporters from independent Globotelevision outside the Palacio Federal Legislativo, the seat of the National Assembly, at around 10am local time, the broadcaster reported. One of the attackers allegedly punched a reporter in the face while he stood at a police line, while police officers looked on.

Another gang of government supporters allegedly attacked a second team of Globovision reporters while they interviewed student leader Ricardo Sanchez, punching a cameraman and attempting to take a gas mask he was carrying for protection against tear gas.

And at least 12 reporters marching against the new law were injured following an alleged attack by government sympathisers.

The assailants apparently ambushed the journalist-demonstrators of the Cadena Capriles journalists' network, beating them with sticks and other blunt objects.

The journalists required medical treatment for their injuries.

Local journalist organisations, such as the 'Colegio Nacional de Prensa' (CNP) and the 'Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa' (SNTP), were vocal in their condemnation of the attacks. In a joint statement, the CNP and SNTP both blamed the government for the aggression, due to its "constant use of bellicose, hateful and threatening language."

Chavez's administration condemned the violence against the journalists in a statement issued by the Ministry for Communication and Information, stating that "differences must be resolved on the level of ideas, through dialogue and constructively," while confirming that an investigation into the attacks had been launched.

Chavez's critics accuse him of inciting the attacks before condemning them.

"It is ironic that journalists covering a law perceived to threaten media freedom in Venezuela were attacked outside the National Assembly building, in the presence of police," said IPI Deputy Director Michael Kudlak.

"It is not enough for President Chavez to condemn such attacks after they occur. The Venezuelan authorities must uphold media freedom and foster a climate in which reporters are free to go about their job without fear of being assaulted by pro-Chavez thugs."

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