HAVANA TIMES, Dec 16 (IPS) — Controversy has flared up in Venezuela over planned reforms to the law on online media, especially because restrictions that already apply to the content of radio and television broadcasts would be extended to the internet. Portals and networks that transmit messages deemed to be illegal may face heavy fines, or even be shut down.
The single-chamber legislature, made up of over 90 percent pro-government lawmakers, approved the first reading of an amendment to the 2005 Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Law (Ley RESORTE), extending its provisions to electronic media.
Under the proposed amendments, radio, TV or internet messages that “could incite crimes against the president”, “could stir up unrest or disturb public order”, “defy the legitimately installed authorities,” or that promote law- breaking, war, hate or political, religious, racial, gender or xenophobic intolerance, will be actionable.
The reform bill is likely to be adopted at its second reading this week, along with other draft laws speeding through Congress in a race against time. Emergency sessions are being held this month at all hours, before the newly elected Congress takes office Jan. 5, with a strong opposition that is still in the minority, but will be vocal.
“No one need be afraid,” said the chairman of the congressional Media Committee, Manuel Villalba. “The reforms are to protect citizens against problems like pornography and pedophilia. There are those in the internet world who use technology to give free rein to the baser instincts, so the state must protect the general public.”
That is why “we are extending the Ley RESORTE to online media. If a blogger posts a message inciting murder, he or she must be held accountable, as well as the person administering the web page, because they ought to use the portal responsibly,” said Villalba, of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
According to Reporters Without Borders, “the original version of the Ley RESORTE already encourages media self- censorship by defining offences in a very general and convoluted manner that is open to all kinds of interpretation. The new version develops this flaw to the point of caricature.”
Carlos Correa, the head of Espacio Público, an NGO that works for media freedom, told IPS that “stretching audiovisual media regulations to cover the internet is not compatible with international standards, and puts enormous discretionary powers in state hands. Furthermore, this reform bill affects substantive rights and should be widely discussed in society, instead of being rushed through Congress.”
The proposed amendment establishes the social responsibility of those who provide television, radio and internet services, and will affect all text, images, sound or content sent or received in Venezuela, including the content of advertising spots or material broadcast by independent producers that use their air time.
Internet providers are required to have mechanisms in place to restrict messages and access to websites that break laws, to be used at the request of the telecommunications regulator.
Possible Reform of Telecommunications Law
Meanwhile, there is a proposal to reform the Telecommunications Law, enacted in 2000 during President Hugo Chavez’s first term of office (he has been in power since 1999), which is ready for debate in Congress, and would require all radio and television operators to renew their licenses.
Controls are to be stiffened and penalties will be more severe, ranging from mandatory airing of educational messages, to definitive closure and revocation of broadcasting licenses.
The opposition bloc, private media critical of the government, journalists’ associations and Catholic Church leaders have criticized the tightening of state control and the penalties envisaged by the reforms.
“Who could be against protecting children and adolescents from harmful messages? No one is suggesting limiting access to the internet; the aim is to establish mechanisms to ensure it is used properly. This is a global debate,” said PSUV lawmaker and journalist Desirée Santos when she presented the new Ley RESORTE in Congress.
But in the view of critics like Correa, “the praiseworthy goal of protecting children and adolescents should not lead to measures that progressively reduce public access to communications and limit the variety of options to choose from.
“Penalties are being applied to content, even though the criminal code already provides for punishment for the same crimes, for instance for offences against public officials. Yet on the other hand, there are no measures to protect citizens from being bombarded by such officials in the media,” said Correa.
Early drafts of the reform bill, circulated among lawmakers over the past three days, set off alarm bells because they were even more restrictive than the draft finally presented to Congress for deliberation.
For example, earlier proposals called for the creation of a government-run internet hub to manage all traffic transmitted from and received in Venezuela; a ban on radio repeater services which would eliminate sports and news broadcasts on private national relays; and a ban on expanding coverage to the whole of Venezuela, by subscription viewing, of television channels licensed for a single city.
The United Nations rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, said he regretted the tenor of the reform bills before the Venezuelan Congress because, in his view, internet regulation should be kept to a minimum, in order to preserve its freedom.
Similar problems “arise when China bans on-line reports on the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to dissident Liu Xiaobo, or when the United States wishes to suppress Wikileaks.
There is a failure to understand that criticism may be embarrassing, but this does not turn it into a security problem,” La Rue said.
In the same vein, Luis Pardo Sáinz, head of the International Radio Broadcasting Association (AIR), complained that “Venezuela is showing a lack of democratic will: instead of trying to silence dissident voices, it should encourage more and more of them, whether they are fair or not.”