2004: When Censorship becomes an Institution

The freedom of expression gag seen today in Venezuela has been around for over ten years. An ambiguous and voracious law from 2004 would establish censorship as a fundamental part of chavista philosophy for years to come.

Original art by @modográfico

President Hugo Chávez had a hard time overcoming the recall referendum held in 2004 against him, but he pulled through. That populist cocktail of “social missions,” electoral obstacles and persecution against public officials (how could we forget the Tascón list?) accomplished the goal.

On August 15th in his office, the Head of State reviewed his position and found that he had overcome, against all odds.

Chavismo was aware that after every electoral victory, regardless of how close it was, there comes a kind of truce in the political struggle, perfect for laying a new brick in the construction of the Bolivarian Revolution. And so we heard the proposals during that recall chaos: a law to restrict the free circulation of information through radio and television—the true boogeyman of Chávez’s nightmares.

The National Assembly came up with the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which was later shortened for our comfort to “Ley Resorte.” Everything journalists, reporters and media owners knew about slander and libel – crimes of opinion established in the Criminal Code – stopped being logical concerns.

Suddenly, codes of conduct restricting broadcast times for profanity and sexual content in television were mixed with barriers against information that “incites or promotes hatred and intolerance” or “fosters fear or upsets the public order.” The law made it clear that service providers who committed any of the 25 “offenses” could lose their broadcasting licenses.

What about coverage of protests? Would we be able to broadcast situations of violence or upheaval on live TV? Would we be able to debate about politics at any time of the day? What would be the boundary between information, opinion and offense? Who decides the latter? With the Ley Resorte, the duty to inform became an extraordinary event, an intricate and delicate web of risks imprisoning both outlets and journalists as elephants in a glass house.

There have been at least 3118 violations against freedom of expression since 2004, 564 of which are typified as censorship (18% of all cases).

Those questions were never answered. The law kept an ambiguous prose, ready to “protect” the public while also stripping them of their constitutionally guaranteed right to free, verifiable and timely information. It was broad enough to promote the creation of national independent producers, who were entitled to 80% of stations’ broadcasting time in order to boost national production, and opaque enough to create a Social Responsibility Bureau, with people close to the administration acting as a court of opinion, the last word on the fate of media outlets.

It didn’t take long for the law to have its most powerful effect: self-censorship, and later, sheer censorship. Today, scripts in the few remaining independent radio stations expressly caution about mentioning drug-trafficking or Diosdado Cabello, in case the National Telecommunications Committee (CONATEL) is listening.

According to NGO Espacio Público, since the law was enacted in December 2004 – approved despite the observations made and the protests – until 2016, there have been at least 3118 violations against freedom of expression, 564 of which are typified as censorship (18% of all cases). Most of these were committed against individual journalists and included attacks, insults, harassment, intimidation, destruction and robbery of equipments.

In 2005, the regime started using both CONATEL and the Tax Bureau (SENIAT) to crack down on any critical media outlet with harsh administrative restrictions, closing, for instance, nearly every radio station and newspaper in the state of Bolívar.

At least 92 radio and TV media outlets have been shut down to this date, according to the Venezuelan chapter of the Press and Society Institute (IPYS).

The regime no longer uses the law to crack down on specific programs or entire outlets, at least not officially. They scarcely reveal the “reasons” behind their decisions and rarely mention violations against specific articles. They pay no mind to the right of the accused to establish his or her defense or to present evidence.

Time passed has proven the Ley Resorte to be the scaffolding that, along with the forced purchase of opposition media outlets and the judicial persecution of journalists, would mute what only exists in democracy and is fueled by independent media: public opinion.