“Communication is free and plural and must adhere to the obligations and responsibilities under the law. Every person has the right to objective, true and impartial information, without censorship…”
(Article 58, Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela).
Articles 57 and 58 of the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela guarantee the right to “true and objective information” and freedom of expression, as well the universal protection from war propaganda and discriminatory and intolerant messages. Furthermore, Article 58 guarantees children and adolescents the right to receive information appropriate to aid their development.
These Constitutional provisions were included in the 1999 Constitution, which was ratified by over 70% of voters in an extraordinary nationwide referendum. Articles 57 and 58 of the Constitution are in accordance with international instruments of human rights law including the United Nations Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration of Chapultepec and the American Convention on Human Rights, also known as the San José Agreement.
In order to implement these new constitutional guarantees, a new law will be passed by the legislature in Venezuela. This regulation, the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, seeks the following:
- To ensure information and communication as a fundamental right and as part of the process of democratizing Venezuelan State and society, as well as guarantee the basic constitutional rights and protections accorded to Venezuelan citizens in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and under international human rights instruments.
- To act as the enforcement mechanism of the rights guaranteed in Articles 57 and 58 of the Constitution and ensure a balance between an individual’s right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of the press.
- To make possible the true exercise of freedom of expression for all, and ensure the delivery of free, diverse, alternative, plural, actual and quality information.
- To establish the prohibition of selective censorship and require a level of social responsibility from all media, in order to guarantee the free expression of ideas and flow of objective information essential to social development.
- To democratize telecommunications and prevent the media from serving as a powerful and dangerous propaganda tool for any political party or organization, including that of the State.
- To ensure the protection of children and adolescents as guaranteed under the Venezuelan Constitution as well as the Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents in Venezuela, the Law of Education and all the judicial instruments that guarantee freedom of expression and information of children and adolescents, in order to promote their spiritual, moral, physical, mental and overall growth.
- To guarantee the broadcast of national and independent productions and to encourage the development of the nation’s audiovisual industry.
- To promote the active participation of citizens in the media and to contribute to the achievement of societal and cultural goals.
WHY DO WE NEED A LAW OF RESPONSIBILITY IN RADIO & TELEVISION?
In today’s society where mass media is privatized and owned by multinational corporations with economic interests and motives other than providing “true and accurate information”, international human rights’ bodies have recognized the need to have laws ensuring democratization of the media and protecting the rights of citizens as guaranteed under the Constitution. Countries throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas have passed similar telecommunications laws that emphasize the social role and responsibility of the mass media to provide true, balanced and impartial information to citizens.
The debate is growing over whether freedom of expression continues to guarantee the flow of free ideas in democratic societies or rather has been converted simply into tool of the corporate-owned media, which has been imposing its interests on society. If freedom of expression is considered fundamental in the exercise of human rights and the essence of democracy, then it requires a constant critical look to ensure that its exercise is not distorted by the changes in every day society.
International instruments of human rights and humanitarian law have clearly recognized the bedrock importance of freedom of expression as a fundamental right in a democracy. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in Article 19:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to…seek, receive and impart information and ideas throughout any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Freedom of expression is an inalienable right of all citizens, not just those who own media conglomerates, and the guarantee of plurality of voices and channels that cater to diverse listening audiences is the only guarantee of ensuring the reality of these democratic rights.
VENEZUELA’S UNIQUE SITUATION
The notion of widespread and diverse control over media is a core value in a free society. A central mission of democratic media policymaking is to prevent concentrated and noncompetitive media markets, and to ensure media represents the interests of citizens. The Venezuelan Constitution and this new Law recognize that broadcasters who use the public airwaves should be required to serve the public interest.
It’s important to note that Venezuela currently lacks updated legislation regulating radio and television broadcasts, which today exercise a profound influence on the public, above all on children and adolescents. All the present regulations are based on a Law that dates back to 1940, before Venezuela even had television, and the rules are incomplete and fragmented. Additionally, society has radically changed in the past sixty years. Media outlets are no longer the small companies of yesterday, but rather have been converted into the big monopolies of today, with the highest levels of concentration of ownership in the economic sector.
Therefore, it is essential to create new regulations regarding telecommunications broadcasts, and in no way does such legislation limit the right to freedom of expression. In fact, the new Law adheres to all constitutional mandates and will place Venezuela at the forefront of international conventions concerning this topic, as well as align the nation with the principles of the International Union of Telecommunications.
In Venezuela, four major private television networks control at least 85% of the market and smaller private stations control another 10%. This 95% of the broadcast market has outwardly expressed its opposition to President Chávez’s administration. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that monopolies or oligopolies in the ownership and control of communications media “…conspire against democracy by limiting the plurality and diversity which ensure the full exercise of people’s right to information.” In Venezuela, the monopoly in the ownership and control of the communications media has threatened democracy and constitutional order.
The Federal Communications Commission in the United States recently decided to allow a greater degree of media cross-ownership and consolidation, which would increase media monopolies and control of information by corporate bodies. These new regulations have come under heavy attack by the U.S. Congress and are in the process of being repealed. The U.S. Congress sees the danger of a deregulated media, which in Venezuela has resulted in significant harm and constitutional violations, including:
- The media’s notorious participation in the failed coup d’etat against President Chávez in April 2002, which included newscasters inciting viewers to violence in the streets, to persecute government officials and supporters and an outright refusal to broadcast any breaking news favorable to the government;
- The media’s imposed blackout on all news developments the day of the return of President Chávez to power – the media chose to broadcast old movies and cartoons while millions poured into the streets demanding the President’s return, which occurred later that evening without coverage from the private media channels;
- The media’s open participation in the December 2002 strike, suspending regular programming and broadcasting opposition marches, speeches and violent propaganda 24 hours a day, even during children’s viewing hours;
- The media’s now-professed manipulation of images of violence during the April 2002 coup, which was the basis of the opposition’s justification for the coup itself;
- The use of subliminal messages during children’s viewing hours – an act outlawed since the 1970s.
“All people should be afforded equal opportunities to receive, seek and impart information by any means of communication without discrimination for reasons of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, economic status, birth or any other social condition.”
(Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).
Such equal opportunities will only be present in a balanced, democratized media. In Venezuela, the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television is the first step towards achieving this goal.