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Attack on Venezuela Media

As Venezuelans prepare for a constitutional referendum this year on the future of their nation’s leadership, President Hugo Chavez has stepped up efforts to curb media freedoms in his country, sending a disturbing message at home and abroad.

Chavez’s actions signal his hesitation to honor agreements aimed at resolving the Venezuelan political and economic crisis that led last year to a coup against him. Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, brokered these accords in May. And Chavez’s conduct undercuts the conflict-resolving efforts of the six-nation Group of Friends of Venezuela, whose goal is to defend democracy for their Latin American neighbors.

Freedom of the press is a pillar of democracy. But, adding to the bad old practices of getting government-sponsored mobs to beat journalists in the streets or throw rocks through their office windows, Chavez and his cronies, in presidential halls and congressional corridors, now plot ways to assault the media at a higher level.

This attack began with an investigation by the Ministry of Infrastructure of four media conglomerates, ostensibly to see if they meet existing regulations prohibiting the transmission of “false, deceitful or tendentious news.”

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There’s no other reason for this probe than to intimidate the media, because Chavez knows that the law, wrongly, gives the state the authority to judge the truth and fairness of the news and to impose sanctions. Even worse than actual action would be self-censorship by Venezuelan broadcasters and other journalists fearful of getting hit with this unrestrained exercise of government power.

Lest the threat to democracy seem overstated, consider that the regime also is probing whether the Venezuelan media “incites ... lack of respect for the legitimate institutions and authorities.” Oh, please, which is really desirable -- complacent respect for the autocratic or a robust democracy that permits the airing of views by all?

Chavez’s allies in Congress are pressing for mendacious media laws, disguised with talk of “social responsibility” and achieving a “democratic balance” between broadcaster rights and societal duties.

Ignore the filigree -- this is just more of the crackdown on the media, and the respected group Human Rights Watch recognizes this. Its leaders respectfully asked Chavez to halt this campaign. His aides replied: Butt out.

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Bad move, Mr. President. You’re just proving critics’ suspicions about your dictatorial nature. More important, your people and your neighbors should get more, not less, media freedom and democracy.


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