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Laws approved by legislature pose serious threats to free speech, civil society, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Washington, DC, December 22, 2010 - Three laws just approved by the Venezuelan legislature pose serious threats to free speech and the work of civil society, Human Rights Watch said today.

Changes to the laws governing broadcast media were approved on December 20, 2010, by the National Assembly, in which allies of President Hugo Chávez have an absolute majority. The changes introduce sweeping restrictions on internet traffic, reinforce existing restrictions on radio and television content, and allow the government to terminate broadcasting licenses on arbitrary grounds. A law approved on December 22 would prohibit human rights groups from receiving foreign funding or fostering public dialogue in Venezuela with international advocacy groups.

"Chávez and his supporters are once again ratcheting up the government's power to punish critics," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "And their intolerance for dissent now has a new target: the internet."

The Law for Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media

Approved on December 20, this revised version of the existing broadcasting law extends existing restrictions on free speech to the internet for the first time.

(. . .)

The Organic Law of Telecommunications

Changes approved on December 20 to the Organic Law of Telecommunications, which regulates broadcasting licenses, declare broadcast media and the internet for the first time to be a "public service" and, as such, "reserved for the state."

(. . .)

The Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination

The law blocks Venezuelan human rights defenders from receiving international support and severely limits their ability to foster public dialogue with foreign experts who are critical of Chávez's policies. Under the law:

a. Nongovernmental organizations that "defend political rights" or "monitor the performance of public bodies" are barred from receiving any foreign funding.
b. Foreigners invited to Venezuela by these groups will be summarily expelled from the country if they express opinions that "offend the institutions of state, top officials or attack the exercise of sovereignty." Organizations that invite them would face stiff fines, and their directors could lose their right to run for public office for up to eight years.

"This law gives the Chávez government legal cover to expand its longstanding practice of bullying local human rights defenders and trying to keep international advocates away from the Venezuelan public," Vivanco said.

Chávez and his supporters have repeatedly sought to discredit local rights advocates with unsubstantiated claims that they were on the payroll of the US government. In July, for example, it depicted a well known advocate of freedom of expression in a state television cartoon with a briefcase bulging with US dollars.

Human rights organizations throughout Latin America have long depended on financing from philanthropic foundations and other foreign funding sources. The proposed law would make it very difficult for Venezuelan human rights groups to secure sustainable financing, Human Rights Watch said.

The Chávez government has refused to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to conduct fact-finding missions in Venezuela. In September 2008, it forcibly detained and summarily expelled two Human Rights Watch staff members after they released a report in Caracas. The government attempted to justify the measure on specious legal grounds, as well as a defense of national sovereignty.

Venezuela is a party to key regional and international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights, and as such has legal obligations to respect and protect the right to free expression and the right to organize, both fundamental to a democratic society. It is also bound by international standards that safeguard the rights of human rights defenders to carry out their work without undue interference or punishment. The new laws violate all such standards and blatantly flout Venezuela's international obligations.

Click here to read the entire press release, including details of the two media laws

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