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Freedom of the Press 2008 - Venezuela

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 29 April 2008
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2008 - Venezuela, 29 April 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4871f63fc.html [accessed 20 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 26 (of 30)
Political Environment: 29 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 19 (of 30)
Total Score: 74 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)

A hostile political atmosphere under the government of President Hugo Chavez has fostered a steady decline in press freedom over the past several years, and that trend continued in 2007. The major event of the year was the non-renewal of popular opposition-aligned television station RCTV's broadcast license. In general, state initiatives have eroded the influence of private media, in which the previous dominance of pro-opposition outlets has been dwindling. Among other actions, the government has enacted legislation prohibiting the broadcast of certain material, intimidated and denied access to private media, and harassed journalists employed at such outlets.

The legal environment for the press remains poor. The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, signed in December 2004, contains vaguely worded restrictions that can be used to severely limit freedom of expression. For example, the law forbids graphic depictions of violence between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. on both television and radio. Supposed violations of this act were among the reasons given for the nonrenewal of RCTV's license. In March 2005, the penal code was revised to make insulting the president punishable by 6 to 30 months in prison. Furthermore, comments that could "expose another person to contempt or public hatred" are subject to one to three years in prison as well as a severe fine. Inaccurate reporting that "disturbs the public peace" carries a prison sentence of two to five years. Dozens of legal processes remained open in 2007, and there were several convictions, including of opposition daily Tal Cual, which was fined over US$18,000 for seemingly innocuous comments in a satirical piece that mentioned Chavez's daughter.

Government cadenas (announcements) require that broadcasters cease regular programming to transmit official messages. Independent journalists complained that a lack of access impeded their reporting; they were often denied entry to military ceremonies and other official events that state media representatives were allowed to attend. Despite weeks of student-led protests and denunciations by numerous human rights and media groups, RCTV was forced of the air on May 27, 2007. Media watchdogs questioned the decision's motivation, legality, and lack of transparency. In a survey by regional watchdog Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), 30% of journalists declared that the station's closure would make them think twice about publishing certain information. In December, Venezuelans rejected by a narrow margin a package of constitutional amendments that would have given the president greater power to declare states of emergency and eliminated the requirement that freedom of information be maintained during these periods.

Direct assaults on the media continued to occur regularly in 2007. Tensions were particularly high during street protests, which peaked during the periods preceding the RCTV closure and the constitutional referendum. Opposition station Globovision remained a primary target of physical aggression and denial of access, as well as verbal attacks threatening investigations and the possible cancellation of its license. The IPYS survey revealed that 56% of journalists had suffered some sort of verbal or physical threat or attack during the previous year. The state does little to nothing to discourage such harassment; the same survey noted that only 9% of reporters were inclined to ever formally complain about threats, attacks, and harassment. In May prominent government ally Eva Golinger unveiled a list of 33 journalists who had participated in cultural exchange programs financed by the US State Department. Along with some congressional allies, she called for investigations into whether the reporters were engaged in espionage. However, even some government supporters, notably National Assembly president Desiree Santos and former vice president Jose Vicente Rangel, acknowledged that the accusations were extreme and wreaked of McCarthyism.

The government controls five national television stations, a national radio network, and a wire service, all of which have benefited from budget increases. Such government-run stations operate alongside multiple private television and radio stations in the country. Local and regional media are particularly dependent on government advertising revenue, leaving them vulnerable to economic retaliation for criticism. According to responses to the IPYS study, fear of offending the government and ad-buyers were the two primary reasons for a high level of editorial-directed self-censorship. The president has a weekly television show and exercises his power to preempt programming to ensure extensive coverage of government announcements in private media. During the run-up to the referendum the local Media Monitoring Group analyzed time spent covering the "yes" and "no" options and found that while some private stations were quite lopsided against the referendum, state outlets were even more dramatically tilted to one side. There are no government restrictions on the internet, which had over three million users (nearly 13 percent of the population) by the end of 2006.

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