Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the increased penalties for press offences in amendments to Venezuela’s criminal code that took effect on 16 March, saying they represented "a big step backwards" for press freedom.
"Five of the 38 amended articles directly threaten press freedom," the organization said. "Instead of moving towards the decriminalization advocated by the United Nations, these amendments step up the prison sentences for some press offences. The Venezuelan authorities are running counter to the general tendency to liberalize press laws."
Reporters Without Borders also pointed out that the heavy penalties envisaged for such poorly defined offences as "insult" or the need to "protect honour" would encourage journalists to censor themselves when criticising the authorities for fear of being punished.
The press freedom organization said other legislation affecting the press has also become tougher in recent months. In July, the supreme court ratified a law under which a person can be imprisoned for working as a journalist without having a journalism degree or belonging to an association of journalists. Broadcast media found guilty of breaking a law on content that was promulgated on 8 December risk heavy fines or losing their licences.
"In view of the confrontation between the government and the leading privately-owned news media, we fear that the government could use these new laws to try to silence its critics," Reporters Without Borders said.
The amendments to 17 of the criminal code’s articles were approved by the national assembly on second reading on 9 December. The amendments to 21 other articles had already been adopted on the first reading on 2 December.
President Hugo Chávez delayed promulgating the reform to allow time for corrections to several provisions that were deemed to be unconstitutional. After parliament approved these corrections, the so-called "partial reform of the criminal code" took effect on 16 March and was published in the official gazette on 17 March.
The new version of article 148 of the criminal code makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison. Article 149 says that, if another state representative is insulted, the punishment is a half to two thirds of that in 148, depending on the rank of the person insulted.
The new article 297A stipulates that the dissemination of inaccurate news by means of print media, radio, telephone or e-mail with the aim of "causing panic" is punishable by two to five years in prison.
Article 444 on defamation says any individual making comments that could "expose another person to contempt or public hatred" is subject to a sentence of one to three years in prison and a fine. Until now, the criminal code provided for no more than 18 months in prison for this kind of offence. If the offence is committed in a public manner, the prison sentence can be as much as four years and the fine can be doubled. The article refers explicitly to press reports.
Article 446 on the protection of honour has the same provisions. An insult, which previously was punishable by a maximum of eight days in prison, can now result in a sentence of six months to a year in prison. The penalty is one to two years in prison if the offence is committed by means of the press.
The UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion clearly and formally stated in January 2000 that "the imposition of a prison sentence for the peaceful expression of opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights."
Furthermore, article 11 of the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2000 says: "Public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials restrict freedom of expression and the right to information."