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VENEZUELA
Reforms or restrictions?
Mike Ceaser
11/11/2004
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A series of reforms are labeled by Chávez’s opponents as human rights violations or attempts to restrict civil liberties.

A series of legal reforms proposed by President Hugo Chávez’s government are receiving harsh criticism from a variety of opposition organizations, who say the government intends to restrict civil liberties.

At the same time, the Catholic Church and some political parties are lashing out at proposals to de-penalize abortion and euthanasia.

The government says that all are necessary reforms for obsolete laws.

The oldest and most furious polemic surrounds The Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television, which would apply a range of restrictions on electronic media. The private media, most of which are fiercely critical of Chávez, have become standard bearers for the opposition — and frequent targets of criticism by Chávez, who has equated them with terrorists and repeatedly threatened to shut them down.

"Gag Law"

The proposed law, which government opponents call the "Ley Mordaza" or "Gag Law" would impose a complex system of controls on programming, most of them designed to protect children from sex and violence during certain hours. However, Chávez opponents charge that this rule would delay the transmission of many news events if they were to happen during the day and suggest that the rule’s real intention is to restrict reporting of alleged government human rights abuses.

"With the application of this law, television viewers will not be able to learn of the magnitude of events which occur before 11 p.m.," Free Expression, an organization of opposition media workers, said in a statement.

Communications Minister Andrés Izarra, however, said that the law would not restrict live transmissions, but only the "anti-ethical" use of the images, such as "the repetition of the image during protected and supervised hours, or the image’s use with music...which incites some type of interpretation of the event."

Television stations have sometimes repetitively transmitted scenes of government violence, dramatized with sinister music.

The law also mandates the closure of a radio or television station for 72 hours for programming which "promotes, apologizes for or incites war, alterations of public order or crime or is … contrary to national security."

Government critics say the law is so subjectively written that it can be applied arbitrarily to punish government critics. Human Rights Watch warned that the law would "promote a climate of self-censorship, foment complacency and timidity in the press and repress public debate."

The United States State Department has also expressed concerns about the bill.

The Venezuelan government, however, says that many of the law’s clauses are similar to those in force in Europe.

"What is occurring in Venezuela is a world trend … and we are going a little further because we are seeking to democratize this space and guarantee that this space, which is public property and belongs to all Venezuelans, is effectively used by all Venezuelans," Izarra said.

Chávez’s critics have repeatedly — and mistakenly — warned that he was about to shut down the independent media, which is still vigorous and unrestrained after six years of Chávez rule.

Other reforms

Proposed reforms of the penal code, which is almost a century old and has been little updated, are also being criticized as assaults on civil rights. One proposed reform being considered by the National Assembly would impose prison terms for acts such as blocking roads, "intimidating" public officials and "causing public panic" by using "false information." Blocking roads, building bonfires and protesting in front of officials’ homes are common forms of public protest in Venezuela. In March, widespread anti-government protests nearly shut down the country for several days.

Chávez’s opponents also express concern about a proposed reform imposing a 20 to 30-year prison sentence for distributing money for "conspiring against the republic’s territory, state institutions or for destabilizing the social order." The law states that the maximum penalty is to be imposed if the money comes from a "foreign state or society." Some, including church officials, worry that the government will use this clause against critics who receive foreign funds. Currently, several officials of the Venezuelan non-profit Súmate, which received US government funds and promoted the Aug. 15 referendum which failed to oust Chávez, are facing conspiracy charges.

"We are facing a legal project that would almost (impose) a police state," said Msgr. Baltazar Porras, President of the Venezuelan Bishops Conference. The government "wants to control all the thinking of all aspects of Venezuelan society."

Proposals to de-penalize abortion

Catholic Church leaders have also attacked a proposal to de-penalize abortion in many situations. Abortion is now permitted in Venezuela only when the woman’s life is in danger, and otherwise subject to a penalty of up to 12 years imprisonment, although the law is almost never enforced. But a reformed penal code proposed by the nation’s Supreme Court would de-penalize abortion on demand during the first three months of pregnancy and allow it after that under several circumstances.

De-penalizing euthanasia is also being considered.

In a statement posted on its website, the Venezuelan Bishops Conference expressed its "absolute rejection" of the proposed de-penalization.

"Voluntarily interrupting the gestation of a human life through a provoked abortion, in any of its forms, is equivalent to denying a person or a citizen his first human right: the right to life," the statement said.

Women’s rights organizations expressed support for the proposal, however. There are no statistics on the number of abortions performed illegally in Venezuela. However, illegal, cut-rate abortionists are notoriously dangerous and unethical.

Women’s rights advocates describe the abortion prohibition as penalizing primarily poor women because those with money can have the procedure done safely in expensive clinics, which often perform abortions, or even fly to Miami. Annually, 60,000 Venezuelan women and girls undergo abortions and 8,000 are hospitalized with complications, according to the human rights organization Provea.


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