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Legal reforms violate free expression

In the final weeks of the outgoing Venezuelan parliament, controlled by President Hugo Chávez, a series of repressive media bills that limit free expression and threaten human rights are being pushed through for approval, report the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS-Venezuela), the Inter American Press Institute (IAPA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and ARTICLE 19.

RSF suggested the bills would be better off debated when the new assembly, which includes more opposition candidates, begins sitting on 5 January. But Chávez is pressing hard for the adoption of legislation that will control information, particularly on the Internet, and encourage media self-censorship due to its vague terms, say the IFEX members.

On 20 December, an amendment to the Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Law (Ley Resorte), restricting content for radio, television and the Internet was approved by the National Assembly and is expected to come into force once Chávez signs it into law.

The amendment limits access to websites if they disseminate content that incites violence against the President, and bans media from producing messages that may constitute "media manipulations aimed at promoting confusion among citizens or at altering the public order" or those that "ignore the authorities." It also bans messages that could "be contrary to the nation's security."

The law includes fines for those who do not broadcast the national anthem or comply with disseminating state messages. A crime against the President could lead to a fine of up to 10 percent of the gross annual income of a broadcaster or Internet service provider or a 72-hour suspension.

IPYS-Venezuela notes that the law is worded vaguely and could be applied to blogs, social networking sites and platforms used for cell phones.

Amendments to the other bill awaiting the President's signature, the National Organic Telecommunications Law, will allow for authorities to examine, filter and block Internet traffic to and from Venezuela.

According to CPJ, one section removed from the final telecommunications bill would have forced owners of all TV and radio stations to re-register with the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) in person.

The final bill that was passed changes the length of broadcast licences from 20 to 15 years and allows CONATEL to withdraw the licences of broadcasters that violate the law more than once, which could force Globovisión, the only surviving critical broadcaster, off the air, reports CPJ. Globovisión president Guillermo Zuloaga fled the country in June after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

Two more bills under discussion seriously undermine the work and independence of human rights organisations in the country. One bill, on International Cooperation, requires organisations to subject themselves to highly discretionary government supervision if they engage in any international activity.

The second, on Protection of Sovereignty and Self-Determination, bars donations or contributions from sources other than Venezuelan individuals or legal entities. Organisations that do not comply will be fined double the amount of the monetary aid received, reports IPYS-Venezuela.

"This set of proposed laws fails to meet international standards and appears to intentionally sidestep the authority of the new assembly which has not yet been sworn in," said ARTICLE 19. The legal reforms are taking place just days after parliament voted to give Chávez the power to govern by decree for 18 months.

On 16 December, human rights defenders protesting against the proposals outside the National Assembly were assaulted by alleged Chávez supporters. Journalist and activist Carlos Correa - also a member of the Freedom of Expression Alliance, an NGO coalition that includes IPYS-Venezuela - was struck in the face by an object and received a death threat.

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