The media battle between supporters and opponents of President Chavez subsided a little in 2005 but unfortunately mainly because of a new law about the media’s “social responsibility” and amendments to the criminal code, both curbing freedom of expression and encouraging self-censorship. However, the government and the courts did not make use of the new measures.
“Here we have freedom of opinion but not longer freedom of expression,” is how one Venezuelan writer who switched from supporter to opponent of President Hugo Chavez, summed up the tension or contestatory atmosphere. Chavez won his gamble to marginalise the opposition by winning an August 2004 referendum with 60% approval (on 70% turnout). But his opponents continued their six-year battle largely through the media.
Chavez promulgated a law on 7 December 2004 defining the “social responsibility of the media,” giving the national telecommunications commission, Conatel, power to ban radio and TV stations that “encourage, justify or incite war, criminal offences or disturbance of the peace” and provides for heavy fines and cancellation of broadcasting licences.
Amendments to 38 articles of the criminal code came into force on 16 March 2005, five of them directly concerning press freedom. The new article 148 provides for between six months and two and a half years in prison (up from just three months) for offending the president, with a 30% higher penalty if the insult is made publicly.
The definitions of offences are vague. The new article 297A provides for between two and five years in jail for news likely to “create panic” put out by the media but also by phone or e-mail. Article 444, on defamation, punishes by between one and three years in prison material that exposes anyone to “public contempt or hatred.” Article 446 punishes “damage to the reputation” of anyone by between six months and a year in prison, and up to two years if this is done through the media.
So far the government and courts have not applied the new penalties but they seem to have subdued the media and cancelled out its role as a counterbalance to government power.
Conatel officials and soldiers entered the offices of Radio Alternativa 94.9 FM in Caracas without warning on 10 May 2005 and seized broadcasting equipment, saying the station had no permission to broadcast. The frequency had been reassigned to another station in September 2004 after Radio Alternativa, on the air since 2000, had tried in vain to get a licence. Conatel however broke the law by not making an administrative investigation before taking action.
Other government hounding of the media included the violent arrest by apparent military intelligence officers of two journalists of the daily Últimas Noticias near the presidential palace on 29 June because they had not received permission from a senior pro-government official to take pictures. Another photographer, from the daily El Nuevo País, was beaten and taken away in a military jeep the same day for the same reasons and freed eight hours later in the middle of the night.
Violence and harassment of the media also came from students, who burned the offices of the daily paper Frontera in Mérida on 12 June and kidnapped staff of the daily Notitarde in Valencia on 28 October.
No progress was meanwhile made in the case of the September 2004 murder of Mauro Marcano, of Radio Maturín and columnist for the local daily El Oriental, in Maturín (in the northeastern state of Monagas), who had exposed links between Colombian drug traffickers and top Venezuelan police and military officers, who have not been questioned in the case.