Reporters Without Borders today voiced concern about several provisions of a draft Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, calling on the Venezuelan authorities to set up a special independent body to monitor the law’s implementation.
"The main problem with this law is the room for interpretation," the organisation said in a letter to information and communication minister Andrés Izarra. "As now worded, the definition of the images that must not be broadcast between 5 p.m and 11 p.m. could easily be interpreted as applying to a TV news programme."
"At the same time, state bodies or bodies controlled by the state will be given the task of monitoring the law’s implementation," the letter continued. "They will have at their disposal a range of sanctions that include heavy fines, the temporary closure of errant news media or the withdrawal of their licences. Such an arrangement would only encourage the media to censor themselves in their criticism of the government."
The organisation stressed that, "to prevent any abuse of the law, its implementation must be entrusted to a body independent of the government, and there should be a broad consensus in Venezuelan society about the way its members are appointed."
Civil society representatives are already calling for the elimination of provisions for "protective measures" which have been branded as "covert censorship." Article 33 of the law would empower the authorities, as a "protective measure," to ban the broadcasting of images that "promote, defend or incite war... disturbance of the peace... [or] crime"
This provisions contradicts article 2 of the law which bans censorship, Reporters Without Borders said. "It is also contrary to the American Convention on Human Rights, which has been ratified by Venezuela."
Reporters Without Borders said it was not opposed in principle to a law that determines the obligations of companies that are granted a radio or television broadcasting licence and it welcomed the information and communication’s decision to consult many sectors of society.
"Such an initiative is positive as long as the authorities have not decided on the law’s final wording in advance and are just using it as a device to exonerate themselves," Reporters Without Borders said, urging the minister to take its proposals into account.
The declared aim of the proposed law is to ensure that radio and TV programming takes account of minors. It passed its first reading on 11 February 2003 and parliament began its second reading on 7 October. Its first four articles had been approved by 14 October.
Articles 6 of the law classifies language and images of a violent and sexual nature into categories that may only be broadcast during specific times of the day defined in article 7: a "protected" period from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. when children must be able to watch television on their own; a "supervised" period from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and again from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. when children are supposed to be monitored by their parents; and an "adult" period from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Under article 28, failure to respect the times slots is punishable by fines of up to 1,000, 15 ,000 and 30,000 fiscal units (8,300, 125,000 et 250,000 dollars). Images "that show physical, psychological, sexual or verbal violence or its consequences in a detailed or explicit manner" are deemed to be of "type C" and can only be shown during the adult period. Any breach of that restriction is punishable by a fine of up to 250,000 dollars.
Furthermore, article 29 expands the range of the punishable offences to include the broadcasting of images with no apparent link to the law’s original aim, namely those that "promote, defend or incite war... disturbance of the peace... [or] crime." This category of offence is punishable by closure of the TV station for 72 hours or, when the offence is repeated within five years, withdrawal of the broadcast permit or licence.
Under article 19, the National Commission for Telecommunications (Conatel) - a state entity which regulates the licences granted by the state and which comes under the infrastructure ministry - is put in charge of supervising the "social responsibility" of radio and TV stations and of investigating alleged violations.
Responsibility for supervising the law’s implementation is entrusted by article 20 to a Directorate for the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television Stations with 11 members, seven of which will be appointed by state authorities. The directorate’s powers will include deciding all the punishments to be imposed on news media except for the withdrawal of a broadcasting licence. The infrastructure minister alone will have the right to impose that sanction.