- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez continues to silence his domestic critics. Thirty-four mostly opposition radio stations have been shut down in Venezuela, and more than 200 other stations face closure. The ruse is that these shutdowns are a normal result of the licensing process, but it actually is a thinly veiled mechanism for stamping out free speech.

Last week, the Caracas government submitted a draft law that proposes to punish journalists guilty of “media crimes” with up to four years in prison. Press organs would come under legal scrutiny for publishing information that disturbs “the peace, security and independence of the nation and the institutions of the state.” Public prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz said without apparent irony that the law is necessary to “regulate the freedom of expression” without “harming it.”

Other recent attacks on press freedom in Venezuela have been more direct. On Monday, pro-Chavez thugs stormed the studios of Globovision, the last remaining anti-Chavez television network, lobbing tear gas and threatening employees with guns.

The group was led by hard-left community activist Lina Ron, who was caught on tape cheering on the violence and who has since been detained. Two years ago, when the Chavez regime shut down the popular private television network RCTV, Mr. Chavez threatened Globovision, saying “you should watch where you are going” or he would “do what is necessary.” Mr. Chavez tacitly approved of the recent attack on the network; he said afterward that if anyone took action against his government “500 Lina Rons would appear” and the country would face “chaos, violence and death.”

Freedom of the press is under assault worldwide. According to the Freedom House rankings for 2008, only 17 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with full media freedom, and 42 percent have no access to a free press.

The number of countries enjoying media freedom has been declining for seven years. The outlook has been relatively better in the Western Hemisphere, with 41 percent of the population enjoying a free press, and only 4 percent living without, specifically in Venezuela and Cuba under Fidel and Raul Castro.

The coupling is no coincidence. Mr. Chavez consciously has patterned his creeping dictatorship on the Castro model and sought to clamp down on all forms of public opposition to his one-man rule. Last year, Mr. Chavez issued a presidential diktat that mandated the formation of community monitoring groups for citizens to report on their neighbors if they said anything fishy. Supreme Tribunal Justice Blanca Rosa Marmol de Leon called it “a step toward the creation of a society of informers.”

Press freedom did not die overnight in Venezuela. It has been expiring slowly though a gradual process of censorship, intimidation and violence. Venezuela is a case study in how democracies perish, and a useful cautionary tale for those concerned about the possible erosion of press freedom in this country. Liberties are lost by degrees and not regained without great effort. Night is descending on Venezuela, and the last lamps are being snuffed out as an indifferent world watches without comment.

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