BROOKE GLADSTONE: Freezing out reporters is one of the few options legally available to public officials dealing with a hostile press. But what is here a natural antagonism between the press and the government, approaches all out war in Venezuela. The oligarchs that own the Venezuelan media were deeply suspicious of the leftist presidency of Hugo Chavez, and Chavez supporters charged the media with helping to engineer a coup in 2002. We should point out that Chavez, a former army colonel, himself tried to stage a coup d'etat back in 1992. Six years later, he was the democratically elected president. What's a leader to do when the mainstream press becomes an active participant in efforts to overthrow him? Populist President Hugo Chavez has decided to fight back. [TAPE PLAYS] [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] [HUGO CHAVEZ SPEAKING IN Spanish]
INTERPRETER: Broadcasters who serve the interests of coup-mongers or enemies of the fatherland will be suspended. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: This week, Chavez made his threat the law of the land and signed the so-called "Law of Radio and Television Responsibility" -- what opponents call "the gag law," and what human rights groups call a threat to democracy. But the Chavez government believes it is protecting Venezuelan democracy by clamping down on its media, which continued to ally with the opposition in its efforts to take him down. From Caracas, Carole King reports.
CAROLE KING: Venezuela's oil wealth gave rise both to media oligarchs and to the nation's rising middle class, many of whom supported Chavez at first. But that relationship soon soured, and he was charged with buying off the poor and dismantling democratic institutions, leading the masses toward Cuban-style dictatorship. After months of strikes and protests actively rallied by TV and radio pundits, generals announced Chavez had resigned, and a business leader would lead an interim government. With the media eager to go live with an unfolding coup, Chavez's attorney general said he'd also resign and called a press conference. Then he executed a perfect bait and switch.
ANDRES IZARRA: Instead of resigning, he condemned the coup; he demanded President Chavez' return to power...
CAROLE KING: Andres Izarra was a news producer with privately-owned RCTV.
ANDRES IZARRA: When we were live, I was ordered to cut the coverage, because of what he was saying.
CAROLE KING: Viewers saw cartoons, instead of Chavez' triumphant return when supporters descended by the thousands from the hillside slums of Caracas to support him.
ANDRES IZARRA: I quit my job, because we got instructions not to broadcast any information related to Chavez. We knew that the palace was re-taken by the Chavistas, and we could not say anything because of the information blackout that was imposed by all of the private media.
CAROLE KING: After Chavez returned, station owners apologized, saying they were trying to quell tensions and protect reporters from attacks by pro-Chavez mobs who'd surrounded the stations. It's this kind of history that makes the issue of press freedom and responsibility so contentious here, as reporter Duncan Campbell of The Guardian put it, "when the media are both covering the story and helping to create it." [TAPE OF RADIO VENEZUELA ANNOUNCER IN SPANISH]
CAROLE KING: To compete with opponents who own the stations, Chavez has also taken to the airwaves with his own talk shows. [TAPE OF ANNOUNCER INTRODUCING CHAVEZ IN SPANISH, MUSIC] And hours-long discourses on new state TV channels, not to mention high quality ads that extol his leadership. Sometimes he even orders the private stations to carry his speeches live. Former news producer Izarra is now information minister for Chavez. He says the new radio and TV social responsibility law will democratize the airwaves.
ANDRES IZARRA: The law opens 60 percent of everything that is broadcast on those airwaves to the production of national independent producers.
CAROLE KING: And this time, the Chavez government will decide who gets access through an 11-person Directorate of Social Responsibility, mainly composed of government appointees who will have the power to grant licenses and punish rule-breakers. One rule that troubles the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights would seek to enforce balance and, quote, "truth in reporting." Difficult to evaluate, they say, and easy to use for arbitrary reprisals against dissent. Sebastian Brett is the chief researcher on Venezuela for Human Rights Watch.
SEBASTIAN BRETT: Clearly there's a concept here that the media have responsibilities as well as rights towards society. I think what the law is, basically, is an attempt to impose those standards, and yeah, I think it's about 47 different offenses that the media can, can commit. It tries to impose a straitjacket on the media that encourages self-censorship.
CAROLE KING: The law also allows for government, quote, "precautionary measures," which could make it possible for citizens to question any content by requesting an investigation.
SEBASTIAN BRETT: It could be actually taken off the air until, you know, the matter's been resolved by this council that the government is setting up to review television content.
CAROLE KING: That would be prior censorship, he says, and a violation of the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights. But in the government campaign for the law, the selling point was protecting children from inappropriate images. [TAPE PLAYS] [MAN SPEAKING TO CROWD IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: We will punish, with the full weight of this new law, those who do not respect children's schedules, transmitting violent images, inciting racial hatred, poisoning the minds of our youth. [TAPE ENDS]
CAROLE KING: The decency provision bans images of sex and violence during daytime and most evening hours. A station that broadcasts material considered, quote "an affront to the integral education of children or adolescents" could face fines of 250,000 dollars or up to one percent of its gross income. Ditto for messages considered to justify violence or aggression, incite lawless activity, impede law enforcement or disrupt public order. Critics say the law is so vague in parts, anything could be construed as a crime. [WOMAN SPEAKING TO CROWD IN SPANISH]
CAROLE KING: At a teach-in by journalists with Expresion Libre, or Union for Free Expression, fourteen year old Anibel says she and friends are worried the law could keep them from seeing news, like the 9/11 attacks or the school hostage-taking in Russia, or protests and possible repression in Venezuela. [ANIBEL SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: I can't stay up until 11 at night to find out what happened in my country or around the world. It's cool to hear "Here's what's going on, right now" and not have to wait five hours to find out what happened. [ANIBEL SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
ANDRES IZARRA: The law does not have anything in it that restricts freedom of expression or flow of information. Not a single word.
CAROLE KING: Again, Minister Izarra.
ANDRES IZARRA: Your ethic would not allow you to show a people who was shot on closeup with a pool of blood, but you can show the fact that this event had happened without having to show the gruesome images.
CAROLE KING: Venezuela has, up to now, enjoyed wide freedom of expression, despite the antagonism between Chavez and the press. This new law mutes the antagonism of the media, but not necessarily that of the president. The Organization of American States has warned that a president's inflammatory remarks can incite his supporters to attack dissenting journalists, and human rights groups cite dozens of assaults on the working press since Chavez took office in 1999. [TAPE PLAYS] [MAN SPEAKING TO CROWD IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: To put the brakes on media terrorism that has run roughshod over our liberties and to start to democratize the media airwaves that have been held hostage by an oligarchy that has already supported coups, Fascism and terrorism -- those days are over. [MAN SPEAKING TO CROWD IN SPANISH] [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] [TAPE ENDS]
CAROLE KING: But rights monitors say using blanket terms like "media terrorism" only encourages a climate of violence. Sebastian Brett, Human Rights Watch.
SEBASTIAN BRETT: We've asked the government to investigate all attacks against journalists and to state publicly that such attacks aren't acceptable.
CAROLE KING: At the same time, he says, the opposition press should try to report the news in a less inflammatory and more balanced way.
SEBASTIAN BRETT: But the point is that neither of those situations would justify direct intervention by the state, and we think it's a fundamentally - an authoritarian statute here that we're dealing with.
CAROLE KING: Recent events show how democracy can be threatened by activist biased media, but a law that shackles free expression is even more dangerous. Human rights groups say it's something that should concern not just journalists but every Venezuelan citizen. For On the Media, I'm Carole King in Caracas. [MUSIC]