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State acquires 20% share in only critical TV station, other threats to free expression

State acquires 20% share in only critical TV station, other threats to free expression

Published on Wednesday 8 December 2010.
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The Venezuelan government announced yesterday that it has acquired a 20 per cent stake in Globovisión, the only over-the-air TV channel that is still very critical of President Hugo Chávez after RCTV was stripped of its licence in 2007.

RCTV was subsequently suspended from broadcasting by cable as well, and its latest attempt to return to cable broadcasting was blocked on 25 November.

The state took over the Globovisión stake that was held by Sindicato Ávila, a company that has just been liquidated by the banking supervisory authority. The company was owned by Nelson Mezerhane, an entrepreneur accused of embezzlement whose extradition from the United States, like that of Globovisión owner Guillermo Zuloaga, is now being sought by Venezuela.

The government has long had Globovisión in its sights because of its attitude during the April 2002 coup attempt against Chávez. Although never prosecuted in connection with the coup, it has repeatedly been threatened with suspension or closure and Chávez has regularly taken to accusing the station of wanting to killing him.

If the government were to end up with a controlling share of Globovisión, it would completely dominate over-the-air TV broadcasting in Venezuela. But Globovisión has said the government’s current stake falls far short of the 65 per cent required to impose a new management.

The state’s acquisition of a partial stake in Globovisión has coincided with a new series of controversial measures that threaten freedom of expression. They include a proposed new international cooperation law, currently being debated by the Nation Assembly. Some of its provisions threaten the independence of local NGOs.

Another subject of concern is the proposed extension of the 2004 Radio and TV Social Responsibility Law (Ley Resorte) to cover the Internet. It is under this law that the government, or rather the president, forces all over-the-air TV stations to form a single network (“cadena”) to provide life coverage whenever he delivers one of his marathon speeches. The same law can be used to suspend a news media on such vague grounds as disseminating a report “liable to cause panic and public disorder.”

The National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) has drafted an addition – about Electronic Media Services – to the Ley Resorte that would make the state responsible for ensuring that online content “is appropriate, especially for children and adolescents.” The wording has prompted concern that protecting children will not be its sole aim.

It has also been suggested that amendments could be made to the existing Ley Resorte including a “catalogue of messages that could not be sent at any time.” But what kind of messages? What criteria would be used? That is the issue.

It would be desirable if a broad consensus on communication policy could be reached in a parliamentary debate involving the opposition, which will represented in the National Assembly again from 5 January – the date that the legislature elected last September will begin to sit. It is highly questionable that the government is trying to rush through such major pieces of legislation in the last few days before Christmas, when the entire National Assembly is still pro-government.

The only grounds for satisfaction have been an appeal court decision on 30 November overturning newspaper columnist Francisco “Pancho” Pérez’s libel conviction. Pérez, who writes for El Carabobeño, a daily based in Valencia, the capital of Carabobo states, was fined and, outrageously, banned from working for three years and nine months in June over a March 2009 column accusing Valencia mayor Edgardo Parra of nepotism.

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