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Is Hugo Chávez's re-election good news for free expression in Venezuela?

Venezuelan media organisations Periodistas por la Verdad and Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela offer opposing points of view on what President Hugo Chávez's next six-year term means for free expression

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrates his re-election in the 7 October vote
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrates his re-election in the 7 October vote

Jorge Silva/REUTERS

YES

Marco Hernández, Periodistas por la Verdad (Journalists for the Truth)

Hugo Chávez's re-election will strengthen the most direct forms of freedom of expression in Venezuela – by consolidating alternative media and independent content production.

The availability of these alternative media sources has resulted in many citizens who previously had no voice now having the ability to express themselves in writing, or by speaking out using broadcast media.

As a result of initiatives undertaken by the Chávez government, independent journalists and community groups are now able to operate broadcast media. This has allowed for the emergence of more participatory and active communications that originate from within communities. For instance, 240 alternative media outlets, made up of 180 community radio station and 60 television stations, currently operate in Venezuela. These media outlets represent 33 percent of all broadcasters in the country.

Meanwhile, radio programming and audiovisual materials have been supported by the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media, which incorporates funding for projects undertaken by independent producers. Since 2006, 340 audiovisual and 230 radio projects have been financed, many of which were subsequently broadcast by both privately-owned and public service media outlets.

It is paradoxical that in a country where freedom of expression is considered to be at risk, 120 private radio licences have been issued in the past 12 years, more than under any previous government.

Chávez's government has also prioritised the Internet, which is reflected in the growth of its use. The number of Internet users in Venezuela is approaching 10 million – the highest usage per capita in the Americas – also resulting in the tremendous increase of online media.

Even in print, Venezuela, unlike Chile or Argentina, boasts growth, not closures. Several new daily newspapers unsympathetic to the government, including Tal Cual and Sexto Poder, have been established while Chávez has been in power.

Without a doubt, freedom of expression has been strengthened under Chávez's rule. The democratisation of information and communications has been one of his government's fundamental guiding principles.

Before Chávez, information and communications were controlled by the political and economic elite in the country. A few privileged individuals had access to information, while most citizens were mere bystanders, simple consumers of news.

Today, the right to express oneself is no longer solely exercised by academics, journalists and media owners. Ordinary Venezuelan citizens can speak out more about what interests or concerns them, with no limitations.

Marco Hernández is a journalist and the Director of the non-governmental organisation Periodistas por la Verdad. Founded in 2002, Periodistas por la Verdad brings together journalists whose vision is to carry out their profession in an ethical manner, representing a plurality of voices.

NO

Marianela Balbi, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) Venezuela (Press and Society Institute Venezuela)

We are not hopeful that the free expression situation in Venezuela will improve over President Hugo Chávez's next six-year term.

Just days after Chávez's re-election, National Assembly representatives announced an amendment to the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media, expanding its scope to include cable television as well as digital media, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. This was a clear signal that the government will attempt to exert greater control over media and the communication channels used by many Venezuelans.

Under Chávez, there's been a consolidation of the National Public Media System. We now have a communications conglomerate of four national-reach television stations, along with a local and an international television station; three national-coverage, two local and one international radio stations; a news agency; and four national newspapers. In our opinion, the state has turned this "public" media group into a partisan voice for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela's (PSUV) and Chávez's political ideologies. This goes against everything public service radio and television should be, according to international standards, and flagrantly subverts the right of Venezuela's citizens to plurality in information sources.

And although we appreciate the existence of and support for 265 community media outlets, their work is completely dependent, from a financial, ideological and programming view, on the Chávez government. The majority of these community media outlets have become another propaganda tool, with no space given for a plurality of voices or the political debate that characterises well-established democracies.

Venezuelans' fundamental right to freedom of expression will also be affected by Chávez's decision to withdraw from the American Convention on Human Rights. The move would leave Venezuela outside the jurisdiction of both the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which oversee compliance with the convention. Chávez's re-election means the decision will be put into effect in less than a year.

Yet another free expression threat we've seen is in the move by the Chávez government, along with Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa's administration, to use their influence to push for reforms within the Inter-American Human Rights System. The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in the Americas, Catalina Botero, says these actions could lead to the deterioration in freedom of expression standards throughout Latin America.

IPYS Venezuela has noted an intensification of attacks and threats against journalists under Chávez's rule in an attempt to silence the free press, and we do not expect this to improve. We have issued warnings about prior and indirect censorship, including the use of government advertising to punish critical or independent media outlets. We are fighting for an access to information law. And we want an end to the high level of impunity in cases of assaults on journalists and the media.

No matter who's in power, IPYS Venezuela will continue to call upon the state to ensure the necessary conditions for the unrestricted exercise of the fundamental rights to free expression and press freedom for all Venezuelans.

Marianela Balbi is the Executive Director of Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela, a non-governmental, independent and non-profit organisation that monitors the status of freedom of expression and information in Venezuela.

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