For a More Engaged Society in Venezuela

Venezuela's new law for Social Resposibility in Television and Radio, which has not yet been passed, is designed to to make the instruments of mass communication re-assume the role for which they were created.

In this politically boiling Venezuela, it is not easy to talk about social responsibility.  Maybe due to this, it is even more urgent that citizens talk about it in everyday life, not just leaving it to politicians and the media. In the present atmosphere that we live in, the subject of freedom of speech and its counterpart, the right to information, is one of the most discussed and most questioned issues in Venezuela.

The Chilean sociologist Hugo Osorio points out that the right to information is a social necessity, demanded by members of a society. Without this right, “every democratic information institution crumbles and gives way to lack of confidence and rumor, which are the degradation of information.”

Also, the right to information has gone from being an individual good to a social good.  It has changed its trait of individual human right to become a democratic, political right exercised “democratically, collectively, before the state and also before other groups that can interfere in its adequate use and rights”, as stated by the researcher Miguel Rodríguez.

A discussion that is only just beginning

This is merely the beginning of the discussion.  It has made Venezuela the eye of the hurricane of the world, especially after the events of April 2002, because it affects everyone, especially in these times of globalization, as it refers to the confrontation between basic democratic rights and media dictatorship.

Osorio points out that when there is no plural diverse media reflecting all of society, this can lead not only to a partial vision of the society, but also to a silencing of questions that may reflect essential dimensions of human life.

Clearly, there can be no better instance of this confrontation than what took place here in April of 2002.  Andres Izarra, editor of El Observador on RCTV, resoundingly denounced it.[1] He resigned from the channel citing “extreme stress.”  They wanted him to remain silent about what was happening on the streets of the country.  From then on, he has been pointing out that a media that has abandoned journalism represents a risk to democracy, and this occurs daily in Venezuela.

In this country, the media has ceased to be a mediator, to become a protagonist. It is necessary, for the sake of society’s mental health, to undo this situation; to make the instruments of mass communication re-assume the role for which they were created.  One of the objectives of the Law of Civil Responsibility in Radio and TV is to restore this prime role of the media and that is the subject of this article.

Importance of access to communication

Freedom of speech and freedom to be informed has acquired such an importance that in the 2003 accord signed by the National Government and the opposition, facilitated by the OAS, Carter Center and UNDP, one of the main points was the need for the media “to inform citizens about political options, with equity and impartiality”.

In view of a media that has distorted its role in Venezuelan society, the Chancellor of Foreign Affairs, Roy Chaderton, denounced that the Venezuelan media had usurped the roles abandoned by the traditional political parties at the 23rd OAS General Assembly in Chile on June 9, 2003.  These old parties were democratically displaced from power.  Now, in the name of private interests, news is created, information is manipulated and deformed, thus creating a virtual reality that hides and censures real reality.

Looking for a future

Up to now, every regulation relating to the responsibilities and function of radio and TV have been based on a 1940 law.  At that time, the country did not yet have television.  Seventy years later, in 2002, CONATEL (the state communications commission) released a draft of the Law on social responsibility concerning the services of television and audio broadcasting”.  The idea was that the country would read the draft proposal, discuss it, and get involved in its final editing.  The idea was to develop this sector, which is so important to the country, taking into account new technological, legal, and communication circumstances.

After an intense consultation process all around Venezuela, including universities, the Law on social responsibility of radio and television was tabled on January 2003 during its first debate at the national parliament.  From then on, a new version emerged with 36 articles (the former version had 150!) and which is now awaiting final approval.

One of the fundamental objectives of this law is to contribute to democracy and to implement the principles of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, “especially those related to the full exercise of the right to freedom of speech and the right to free and plural information and communication.”

Furthermore, a series of norms are established to guarantee these rights, to democratize the relationship between people and those who provide communication services, to make way for citizen participation, to anticipate responsibilities, and to promote national productions and independent national productions.

Which democracy?

Which democracy is this law referring to?  It refers to the participatory, active democracy established by the new Constitution, where human life at all its levels is based on the ethical values of coexistence, the full and effective exercise of human rights and political pluralism.

To carry out a democracy of this nature and to put in practice the right of freedom of speech and right to information, it is necessary to have a radio and television network consisting of: public, non-governmental, alternative community, private commercial, and governmental broadcasting.  This law seeks to implement the directive that the state, along with society, “assume their responsibility towards educating how to receive media messages”.

One of the pivotal issues of this proposed law is the idea that information, communication, and culture, although differentiated, are one independent unity.  There is no culture without communication, or communication without information.  Consequently, the quality of information depends to a large degree on the quality of communication, culture, imagination and values of a society.

The law adds that a public domain based on warped, manipulated and biased information and communication, defending the interests of one segment of society, whichever sector, is not really a democratic society.

What communication?

What communication are we talking about?  We refer to the communication that different disciplines have indicated is an essential dimension of personal life, of society, and of culture.  It makes social structure possible and is inherent to it.  Colombian researchers Doris Reníz and Carlos Delgado point out that “it is not society that creates communication, but it is communication which permits common structures for living together and that create community.”

For all these reasons, the Law of Social Responsibility seeks the active participation and oversight of citizens in all the process of production, distribution, and consumption of media messages.  To make this a reality, the law anticipates the role of the national independent producers and committees of consumers as specific forms of citizen participation.

Also, this law forbids prior censorship and demands post-facto responsibility as a way to guarantee freedom of expression and the right to information, since these are the two sides of the same coin.  This is contained in the Bolivarian Constitution, in LOPNA (the law on the rights of children), in the Education Law, and in the so-called St. Joseph Pact, signed by Venezuela.

The law prescribes a Responsibility Fund whose objective is to promote national audiovisual projects, educational projects, and communication research.  It guarantees all consumers the right to general and anticipated information on programming that will permit parents and guardians to select the type of program that their children can watch.

Treníz and Delgado indicate that these freedoms and rights, should, naturally, be exercised assuming civil citizen responsibilities. They further add that the right to communication (which includes freedom of expression and to information among others) supposes also the support of a participatory culture where the common citizen can become an active agent of the communication processes.

The proposed law has been the object of a ferocious campaign on the part of the private media.  They have sent out-of-context and biased messages and propaganda that distort the real intentions of the law, calling it the “Muzzle Law.”  Such highly negative and disqualifying words make it difficult for the Venezuelan or the international community to have a serious and informed debate about it.

Faced with this reality, Media Watch of Venezuela issued a press release in June 2003 pointing out that this project “is presented as an illegal act that restricts freedom of expression”.  They completely ignore the principles of this proposed law and the articles that include the national and international legal frameworks.  Also, they do not specify which articles threaten constitutional rights.

In Venezuela, there is ample freedom of expression that not even the worst enemies of the government can deny.  On the contrary, it is not possible to say the same about the right to information.  Venezuelans are constantly submitted to information manipulation.  The Chancellor, at the OAS General Assembly mentioned above, denounced that, “now the media has dedicated itself not only to promote a coup d’état, but also to promote racism in the country presenting these aberrations as something picturesque and funny and which any public that is not insane would reject with horror.”

The Chancellor asked: why is it possible for other countries to open up public debates about media regulations while in Venezuela we are reproached for exercising the right to legislate as the most advanced democracies do, to protect the public, especially children, from social hatred, violence, war propaganda and pornography?

Jesse Chacón, former director of CONATEL and present Minister of Information and Communication, points out that in Latin America and in the rest of the world, there are similar laws that regulate the activity of the media to guarantee freedom of expression and the right to information.  However, discussions about these regulations have not had the same repercussion as in Venezuela due to the political climate in which we live.

The law: citizens’ need

“Please tell me, what divine power stops us from even mentioning the owners of the media and journalists, without being accused of enemies of freedom of expression and without running the risk of being victims of media coups?”

Hugh Osorio, in his essay Information: An Individual Right for the Public Good, states that the media constitutes the collective mediators between complementary and interactive parts.  They embody the essential tension between opposing individual interests, modeled on personal freedoms and full guarantees and by the social development of the public sphere.”

Final Reflection

While freedom of expression is not limited to our country, we cannot say the same about the right to information, a right that is violated daily and which this law of civil responsibility tries to minimize.  It introduces rights and duties for both the service providers and the consumers.  The law indicates that the audio and audiovisual broadcasting providers, such as radio and television, are fundamental pillars for a democratic society and a culture based on human rights.

These last reasons are more than sufficient to invoke not only the right to communication, but also, as the Argentinean researcher, Miguel Rodríguez states, the right to have certain areas of silence.  This is not to isolate ourselves, although that is also valid, but to have a space for reflection and creation, because with a constant perplexing din there can be no communication.

It is precisely that constant perplexing din which has many Venezuelan sunk in a sea of anxiety and manipulations, supporting and defending values that are the most negative of democracy and conviviality, such as the right to life and diversity.

I will conclude by citing some of the recommendations developed by my first year students at the Faculty of Language and Communication, with whom I have analyzed this law in its various versions.

The students propose that after the Law is approved, there should be a vigorous information campaign to make it known to the public so that they all know their rights and duties with respect to radio and television.

The students also state that “we agree with the radio and television reform that this law intends because our media is full of violence, politics, aggression, and obscenities.  This is why this reform is urgent, so long as it protects the diffusion of opportune, truthful and impartial information, without political, social or economic preferences, let alone, discrimination by race, creed or condition.”

Let us trust then that this law returns the country to tolerance and respect that we so need and that we have so much lost.

Translated by Maria Victor Paez

Morelis Gonzalo Vega is a journalist and university professor

[1] RCTV: Radio Caracas Television, an opposition owned TV channel

Source: Question, June 2004