Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chavez Claims Media Violated Free Speech, Shuts Down 34 Broadcasters

Protesters rallied on Saturday to object to the government shutdown of 34 radio and television stations. Crowds of at least 200 gathered outside Contatel, the country's communications regulator who broke the news. This move follows the shut down of two oppositional television stations just two years earlier.

“In any country that respects the rule of law, a broadcast media suspected of using a frequency in an irregular manner would have been warned in advance that proceedings were being initiated against it and its representatives would have been given a chance to defend themselves or file an appeal,” says Reporters Without Borders.

The crowds outside Contatel in Caracas called Chavez a dictator, while the president says that the outlets are to blame for abusing free speech. "Freedom of expression must be limited,"said Luisa Ortega, Venezuela's Attorney General.

The government is also claiming that the move serves to "democratize" the media and take it out of the hands of the elite. And for yet another inconsistent excuse, a representative from Contatel says the shut downs were due to administrative errors where the stations failed to update their licenses or let them expire.

This assortment of explanations come just one day after Chavez expressed support for new legislation that could further restrict journalists and send them to jail for "media crimes." According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, one area of the proposed bill states that "any person who divulges false news through the media that upsets public peace ... will be sentenced to between two and four years in prison." "False", "manipulated" or "distorted" reports that "harm the interests of the state" would be reason enough to jail journalists for six months to four years.

Government interference isn't a new tactic for silencing media critics; In 2007 RCTV, a known government critic, was not allowed to renew its license. Self censorship was apparent in at least two other stations that noticeably modified their programing after the 2007 incident.

"With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in the region that shows such flagrant disregard for universal standards of freedom of expression," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

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