By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The government took off the gloves in its running battle with the more independently minded media, as Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz insisted that the state had to take action in the face of “new forms of criminality that have arisen as a consequence of the abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion.”
This was the central message of a speech delivered by Ortega Díaz to the National Assembly, which is almost entirely filled with members of President Hugo Chávez’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies. She said it at the very top of the speech, and went on to reiterate it at considerable length.
The Attorney General was proposing the much-vaunted legislation for a Media Crimes Law, about which there has been much talk in government circles of late. There were few surprises in the speech, as much of the rationale had been heard before.
It was necessary, she argued, to bring in new laws to provide “an appropriate protection of the citizens who are left defenseless against the irrational use of power by the media.” Just in case anybody hadn’t got the message, she added: “It is necessary that the Venezuelan state regulates freedom of expression.”
There was a limit to freedom of expression, she claimed, and she urged legislators to put that limit in place. Regulating the conduct of “the owners of the media and all the people who work in them” was a priority for the country, she said, and nobody should be allowed to get away with “committing punishable things nor helping to commit them.”
Neither could the media be allowed to “generate intranquillity, nor alter social peace or public order, nor generate a sense of impunity through news items.” What the media instead had to do was “comply with an educative function” as was stipulated by the constitution.
While Ortega Díaz spoke in general terms of the media, all the indications were that she did not have in mind state broadcasters – who, their critics claim, are all too willing to do the government’s bidding.
Her references to “owners” made it clear that she was talking about privately owned media, some but by no means all of whom are openly critical of the government, most notably the 24-hour news channel, Globovisión.
The government wasn’t out to limit freedom of expression but to “regulate” it, she said, justifying this with the argument that there was no state where “conducts are not regulated.” Freedom of expression wasn’t in danger because “we’re promoting it.”
This, it turned out, did appear to have its limits, as she had made more than plain at the very start. “You can express yourself freely, but you can’t go against the state, you can’t go against the health of people, against public morale and the institutions of the state.”
Ortega Díaz said she wasn't proposing penalties, but setting out the “possibly punishable actions that must be penalized.” It would be up to the legislators to decide about the actual penalties, she explained.
She went on to cite a ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) in July 2003, well into the Chávez era, as a precedent for her argument. Then she set out a list of things she thought were wrong and which had to be punished.
There were omissions and commissions of fact that had to be castigated to ensure “balance and harmony between freedom of expression and the right to opportune, truthful and impartial information,” she explained.
Journalists had to be protected from their owners, and against efforts to coerce them into writing things that weren’t right.
Action had to be taken against those who went up against “the social peace, security and independence of the nation, stability of the institutions of the state and which generate a climate of impunity.”
Individuals or media which broadcast false news that caused public panic or were prejudicial to the interests of the state had to be punished, she continued. So did those who manipulated or distorted news to “transmit a false perception of the facts or to create a matrix of opinion to disturb the social peace of the nation.”
The new law should be designed to protect the public against media bosses and managers who were out to “threaten, intimidate, coerce or sow fear among the population” and the same applied to those out to stir “hatred and hostility” towards collectives and institutions, she concluded.
Deputies were not expected to go to extraordinary lengths in discussing the proposal, given that the powers that be have made it more than clear what they have in mind. In any case, or at least in theory, they had a busy agenda ahead of them.
There was to be yet another “additional credit” for the Interior and Justice Ministry, a report by citizen participation committee on the Electoral Processes Bill aimed at weighting the distribution of electoral seats to the big winners, a report on a reform of the food benefits, and a second debate on credits for tourism.
If approved, and the parliamentary arithmetic leaves not much doubt about that, the Media Crimes Law will be the Chávez regime’s second major peace of legislation aimed at reining in parts of the media it doesn’t like or trust.
Earlier this decade, when Chávez’s then Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and its allies wielded only a modest majority in the chamber, the government pushed through the Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Law.
The legislation was justified on the grounds that there was a need to ensure broadcasting standards, not least to preserve public decency. But amid growing suspicions that the government was of an authoritarian bent, it was dubbed by its critics as a “Gag Law.”
Whether that was the intention, as the Opposition maintained throughout the debate up to the final vote, remains a matter of debate. But if it were, the proposal for an altogether much tougher-sounding Media Crimes Law suggests that the government thinks it hasn’t worked.