By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune Law
CARACAS – The government suddenly ditched its plans to introduce a Media Crimes Law, sparking speculation about its possible motives for doing so.
Announcing the decision, National Assembly President Cilia Flores said that the idea had been shelved after a committee at the legislature had failed to reach a consensus on the Bill. Signs were that this rationale was greeted with not a lot of credibility.
Dissension at the committee stage has rarely, if ever, derailed legislation in the past, and most certainly not on an issue as important to the government as reining in media companies it feels are far too independent for its or the country’s good.
Instead, the abrupt withdrawal of the Bill sparked speculation that the government was having second thoughts about the entire plan. Flores airily declared that the Bill was not on “our legislative agenda.”
The Bill had been proposed in a high-profile speech to the chamber by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. She has become a target for media demands that she should resign or be sacked for abusing her powers.
The media are not the only ones who have been after Ortega Díaz’ head at one time or another. President Hugo Chávez once accused her of not doing enough about his critics, telling her to do so or make way for somebody else who would.
She is now deemed perhaps to have over-reacted with the Media Crimes Bill. The sudden demise of her project prompted speculation that she was being hung out to dry, dangling in the wind.
Flores, for one, did not appear to be anywhere like intent on salvaging Ortega Díaz. Having dismissed the Bill as the Attorney General’s idea, she said the Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Law, which has been on the statute book for some years, was the vehicle for regulating the media.
Whether this view would be amenable to Public Works and Housing Minister Diosdado Cabello is open to question. Cabello has closed down 34 radio stations, says he’s looking at a total of 240, and has adopted the role of the government’s hatchet man in dealing with the independent media.
Cabello is a key figure in the government and a long-standing associate of Chávez. But, then, Flores has the president’s ear as well, and has a habit of getting her own way.
In the meantime, Chávez is reported to have suggested there could be another Enabling Law to give him special powers to push through legislation by decree, as he did for 18 months up to the middle of last year.
Flores said this wasn’t planned “at the moment.” Then she disclosed there weren’t going to be any vacations for the parliament this time round. Not for the first time, she’s evidently decided to crack the whip and get on with business.
Legislators promptly held a first debate on a Bill setting out an Education Law, whose content is opposed by senior university academics as arbitrary and failing to address the issues.
The Bill sailed through a vote and legislators agreed to push it through a second debate next week. Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) wields an overwhelming majority in the chamber.
Cecilia García Arocha, Principal of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) and other leading academics called a press conference Thursday to announce a series of “actions” they intended to take in protest against what they saw as faults in the proposed Education Law. The legislation was being rushed through the chamber when it should be put to thorough discussion, she said.
Luis Ugalde, president of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, took a similar line, saying the Bill couldn’t be pushed through in just seven days. It was not “whatever law” and the history of Venezuela showed that education was a sensitive matter.