- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

From the time Gutenberg published his bible in the 15th century, tyrants have looked upon a free press as the biggest threat to their ambition. Shortly after the Bolshevik coup in 1917, Vladimir Lenin said, “He who now talks about the ‘freedom of the press’ goes backward, and halts our headlong course toward Socialism.” In Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Joseph Goebbels turned Germany’s newspapers and radio stations into vicious Nazi propaganda mouthpieces.

In our time, in recent months, journalists have become a prime target of regimes in Central Asia and al Qaeda terrorists and their allies in Iraq. On March 28, three terrorists in Iraq blew themselves up while trying to plant a bomb designed to kill a reporter for Radio Sawa, part of the U.S. international broadcasting system. A few weeks earlier, journalists working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Turkmenistan were arrested and released only by promising to give up reporting. In Ethiopia, five Voice of America (VOA) journalists were put on trial with more than 100 political dissidents on trumped-up charges of “incitement to riot.” The VOA journalists were dropped from the case after an international outcry.

In light of this history, the trends in Venezuela under the Hugo Chavez regime bear watching. During my visit in 2005, there were disturbing signs that a once free and vibrant press was coming under increasing pressure to either censor themselves or face harassment.

The source of the problem is a series of government laws passed in 2004 and 2005. One, often found in countries with dictatorial regimes, expanded desacato, or disrespect provisions, criminalizing expressions considered “offensive” to public officials and state institutions and drastically increased penalties for libel and slander. Another requires journalists to have “a degree from a government-accredited institution.” The third, put into effect Dec. 7, 2004, is the “Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Broadcasting, known as “Ley Resorte” or “Rebound Law.”

The practical effect of these laws was brought home to me during my visit in 2005 to GLOBOVISION, an all-news channel. The station was covering a “breaking news” story of two soldiers who burned to death in their cells when suddenly the screen went black. It seems continuing coverage would violate a provision preventing continuing coverage of a “report on violence.” The government claimed the soldiers died from smoking in bed, though relatives insisted they were nonsmokers.

After an earlier similar incident, a medical examiner told the media those soldiers were killed by a blowtorch. He is now serving a five-year prison sentence for violating one of the new restrictive laws (Ley Resorte). Since my visit, reports continue of government pressure to apply self-censorship to the news and even to change entertainment programming or run afoul of the “social responsibility” mandate.

For example, all private TV stations must now broadcast five hours of “independent productions.” Many of these turn out to be produced by members of Chavez’s political party or his new-found friends in Cuba and Iran. This January, nine TV and radio stations were charged with not complying with the law because they did not play the required five hours of Venezuelan regional music on commercial prime time.

These incidents and others like them have not gone unnoticed by international watchdog groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in its 2005 report, said their analysis showed “these new measures could be used to silence government opponents and create a climate of self-censorship.” Reporters Without Borders said Mr. Chavez could still claim he is “the country’s most criticized president, but it was also true that the risks journalists took in doing so were never higher.” Human Rights Watch also expressed concern at these developments.

It is not only Venezuela’s broadcasters who are feeling the heat. Last March 15, Ibeyise Pacheco, a print journalist, was sentenced to nine months of house arrest for publishing a story detailing corruption of a high-level military officer. Though her sentence was later suspended, she was ordered not to discuss the case or leave the country.

In light of this crackdown on press freedom, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, on which I serve, has proposed in its fiscal 2007 budget to strengthen our television broadcasts to Venezuela by a adding a 30-minute weekday newsmagazine and a five-day-a-week news feed. This modest proposal was denounced as “a gross form of interventionism” by the Venezuelan Communications Ministry.

Crackdowns on a free press have often been the proverbial canary in the coal mine, foretelling reductions in political freedom to come. Let us hope for the people of Venezuela that will not be the case under the Chavez regime.

Blanquita Cullum, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is chairman of the Talk Radio First Amendment Committee.

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