By Jens Erik Gould
This is part of a series of re-published articles I wrote in 2005 for the Daily Journal in Caracas.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch director for the Americas, criticized recent Venezuelan legislation for limiting freedom of expression on Tuesday.
"The notion of giving extra protection to the reputation of authorities goes against an elemental democratic principal," said Vivanco at a human rights forum at the Catholic University Andres Bello (UCAB).
Vivanco said that the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television and recent reform of the Penal Code contain language that is "highly open and very vague, from which arbitrary activity and abuse can arise."
The legislation in Venezuela is contrary to movements in other Latin American countries and Europe, he said, where the media is putting increasing pressure on state officials.
But Communication and Information minister Andres Izarra rejected Vivanco's statements at Tuesday's inauguration of Telesur, Latin America's new television channel.
"We reject these types of alienated descriptions along with other extreme opinions coming from the United States," said Izarra, referring to Washington-based Human Rights Watch
"In Venezuela, we are providing teams to community media, we are opening new media like (Telesur), we are democratizing radioelectrical space," continued Izarra. "In Venezuela the liberty of expression has tremendous support in the management of the Bolivarian government."
Yet Vivanco, who also said that Venezuelan judicial powers failed to protect values like freedom of expression, was not the first to criticize the recent legislation.
Carlos Correa, director of the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action of Human Rights (Provea), said on May 4 that the reform of 22 articles of Penal Law in March makes it easier to commit crimes against public officials and increases prison time for offenders.
"Political debate is a public good and very important to a democratic society," said Correa. "What's more, the possibility to access information allows for social control of public governance. It's necessary to guarantee that any type of scrutiny of public officials doesn't have consequences."
Correa published a study earlier this month showing a 22 percent rise in Venezuelan violations of freedom of expression in 2004. March 2005 Penal Law reform did not influence the study.
Journalist Sebastian de la Nuez of Ultimas Noticias said at a forum put on by IPYS in early May that Venezuelan society and media could do more to protest the legislation.
"In a participatory democracy, we assume that society has something to say about a matter as delicate as the freedom of the press and penal law," said De la Nuez.
"But they haven't [said anything], or they've done it half-way," he added. "And I believe the media itself hasn't collaborated sufficiently; they haven't done everything they could so that this law can be debated publicly."