By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Infrastructure and Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello, who oversees the government’s broadcasting policy, claimed Friday that the country was clamoring for the government to regulate freedom of expression – which in any case, he argued “isn’t the most sacred liberty in existence.”
In this, he echoed Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, who in speaking in favour of a proposed Media Crimes Law, claimed Thursday that there was a need to legislate in order to provide “an appropriate protection for citizens who are left defenseless against the irrational use of power by the media.” She claimed it was “necessary that the Venezuelan state regulates freedom of expression.”
Speaking before the National Assembly, Ortega Díaz had argued there was a limit to freedom of expression, and urged legislators to put that limit in place. Cabello said he agreed and predicted that the government’s critics would kick up a stink, about which he couldn’t care less.
“They’re going to attack, which shows that the law’s good,” declared Cabello, whose ministerial remit includes control of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), which oversees broadcasting across the country. “If they were applauding, we’d be worried. It would appear it’s necessary to do it, it would appear the country wants it.”
Cabello took aim at Globovisión, the privately-owned 24-hour all-news channel that reports news that is often unfavorable to the government. It has become a primary target of hostility from the authorities.
Globovisión, the minister claimed, was ill; a nest of lies after lies, with never any good news, and it was the same with El Universal and El Nacional. These are the two most respected newspapers in the country.
Until now, the brunt of the government’s attack on the more independently-minded media has largely focused on broadcasters. Cabello’s remark implied the government just as much had its eye on the print media.
Were that the case – and Cabello’s status as the government’s resident hard man and arguably most powerful figure in the Chávez entourage rather suggests it might well be – it would broaden the scope of what is increasingly being seen as a bid to rein in dissenting media for good, and once and for all.
For her part, Ortega Díaz, again pledged her support for the planned new law, claiming that the people had a right not to be subjected to distorted or frightening news. “There has to be a way to guarantee these rights,” she said Friday.
“Freedom of expression cannot be conceived of as an abuse,” she avowed. When news items weren’t “impartial, objective and truthful,” those responsible would be punished. While Ortega Díaz had emphasized she would leave it to legislators to set the penalties, plans are reportedly afoot for prison sentences ranging up to four years.
Communication and Information Minister Blanca Ekkhout chipped in with a statement to the effect that all this wasn’t an attempt to control to the media, but the “crimes that are committed there.” Anybody who wasn’t thinking of committing a crime had no reason to fear, she emphasized.
Meanwhile, officials from Indepabis, the official consumer defense agency, staged an inspection of DirecTV, a satellite television provider throughout North and South America that could soon be subject to the same rules as terrestrial stations – such as a legal obligation to transmit Chávez’s numerous speeches live.
Indepabis fiscal controller Amira de Jermano said “several irregularities” had been uncovered at DirecTV, such as “abusive clauses” in contract terms. The station was being subjected to a “seasonal administrative closure” during which it would not be allowed to make new contracts at national level.
Indepabis lies within the bailiwick of Commerce Minister Eduardo Samán, who ordered the raid last May on a property in east Caracas owned by Globovisión President Guillermo Zuloaga. Officials claimed to have found 24 cars there that were being hoarded for “speculative” gain.
Zuloaga has been charged with “generic usury” in connection with this, and banned from leaving the country while he awaits trial. He insists all to do with the vehicles was in order and that he’s a target of “judicial persecution” at the government’s behest, and a tape of the judge being told to rule against him by her superior judge lends wait to his argument.
His son, Carlos Zuloaga, who’s a vice president at Globovisión, was reported to have claimed on Thursday that Chávez had already taken the decision to close down the channel, but was looking for a way to minimize the political cost of doing so.
He was speaking in place of his father at a forum in Washington on Globovisión’s situation in Venezuela, and suggested Chávez could resort to a court to get his way. Once on the statute book, the planned Media Crimes Law might provide the means to do so.
Chávez has vowed more than once to shut down the channel, and in 2007 revoked the licence of another private broadcaster, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), by refusing to renew its licence. His critics claim the licence still had time to run; RCTV moved to cable and satellite provided by DirecTV.
Reactions to Ortega Díaz’s speech poured in. Human Rights Watch (HRW) Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco issued a lengthy statement warning that the proposed law was “the most frontal attack on freedom of expression in Venezuela since Chávez assumed power.”
The statement claimed: “The Bill is nothing less than a recipe for censorship and will be completely incompatible with International norms on freedom of expression.” Vivanco added that “with the exception of Cuba, Venezuela was the only country in the region that was “openly indifferent to international standards on freedom of expression.”
The National College of Journalists warned that the Media Crimes Law would mark a “first step towards the Thought Police” and was part of “a coordinated attack by the instruments of state to harass the population and oblige them to keep silent.”
The journalists union, SNTP, accused Ortega Díaz of putting freedom of speech up against a wall for execution, warning that the result would be censorship or self-censorship. Some private broadcasters are said to have toned down their news coverage in response to government pressure, or the perception of that, during the last few years.
The InterAmerican Press Society (IPS), which has been critical of the Chávez regime in the past, was reported to have called on the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and El Salvador to investigate recent “situations of violence and intimidation against journalists” in those countries.