Clearing doubts About Venezuela's New Media Law

National Assembly member William Lara, a journalist who represents Chavez's MVR party, responds to common criticisms leveled against the recently passed Law for Social Responsibility in Radio and Television.

By William Lara - Panorama
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Venezuelan Deputy William Lara, a professional journalist and a member of the National Assembly's Committee on Science, Technology and the Media, addressed the main concerns over the recently passed Law on the Responsibility of Radio and Television.

William Lara, deputy of the National Assembly
Credit: Archive

The questions were extracted from interpretations made by the Venezuelan opposition and from some opinions expressed by commercial TV outlets and users, published Dec. 9 in the Maracaibo daily newspaper Panorama.

Q.: Are there any elements in the media law that curtail freedom of expression?

A.: None. The law neither limits nor restricts freedom of information. In the case of a developing protest, a television reporter can show the scenes of public disorder and the action of the state security corps. That is within the context of the law.

What's happening is that there is a campaign of disinformation, of political propaganda directed at creating bogeymen in order to maintain a stance of rejection. This is a profoundly democratic law that places in the hands of Venezuelan citizens the possibility of participating in the communications message in both radio and television.

Q.: Why are the broadcast media not in accord with the text that was approved?

A.: More than demonizing the law, the media have criminalized it, basing their campaign on lies. In the next several months, we're going to wait until the country sees how the law is put into practice and how it will benefit society, because it will allow many journalists, announcers, actors, playwrights, etc., to become radio and TV entrepreneurs by means of independent production.

I know that there are TV channels that have told journalists who host opinion programs that they will not sign any contracts for 2005 and that they'll do this across the board for the purpose of creating an atmosphere of psychological pressure so the journalists will become radicalized against the law.

Q.: What will the effect be on programs that allow for live calls from listeners?

A.: I know there will be programs that will tell listeners that their calls cannot be broadcast because the law forbids it. That's false. But there are programs that will have to adapt their style to the law, especially when it comes to language. A medium of social communication cannot be used to debase the language or to insult, defame or injure other people; rather, it should be used to inform, entertain and educate.

Q.: Is it forbidden to criticize public functionaries?

A.: Any insult directed at the President of the Republic, or at any other citizen, constitutes slander, injury and vilification. At that instant, whoever is hosting the program must tell the caller that he cannot incur in that kind of behavior, because he is offending another citizen. The Constitution protects human dignity. We cannot allow a third party, using a television program, to insult another human being. If I have an issue to settle with someone, I go to the courts to resolve it.

Q.: Who is responsible: the caller or the person who allows that call to go on the air?

A.: The responsibility is shared; it rests on the blind man and the person who strikes the blind man.

Q.: Which regulations take effect immediately?

A.: The law allows the TV and radio stations to adjust themselves. This is a clear signal that we're not trying to run roughshod over any sector of the country. They are given an opportunity to reprogram their daily activities gradually and in the prescribed length of time.

Those who assume a critical stance are encouraged to submit their proposals and contributions to the code of regulations that will be written. The Law on Public Management obligates the executive power to create a code of regulations, and to do this it must consult with the interested sectors and the citizenry in general.

Q.: Are the established sanctions excessive?

A.: To focus the debate on the sanctions implies a very logical deduction, which is: There is a predisposition to break the law. If that deduction didn't exist, the sanctions would be a secondary issue. The law establishes the causes that can determine a sanction. That means that the range of discretion of the official at the helm of Conatel is nonexistent.

That provision belongs in the Code, but we chose to place it in the Law to send a very clear message: The official's discretion should not place his subjectivity at risk. And that will give greater security to the people involved with the Law, the users, the TV and radio producers, that is, the providers of service.

Q.: Why weren't the Journalists' Code of Ethics and the National Constitution sufficient to improve the content of radio and TV programming?

A.: This is an important question for those of us who are journalists, but it's even more important for the owners of radio and TV stations, because there is a TV Camera Code that has never been observed. If there had been spontaneous compliance by the owners, this law would not have to be approved. There have been some terrible experiences in Venezuela, not only in this process but also in the past.

The argument that the Venezuelan people want to see only sex and violence on television is not correct. I remember voices that were raised in the past against that type of television and that now maintain silence during the current debate.

Q.: The channels that specialize on a subject, whether it is news or culture -- would they have to modify their programming?

A.: They have to introduce creativity into their programming. In no way are they obliged to abandon their style or format. It is perfectly valid for Meridiano to cover a teenage or children's sports event or broadcast a baseball game during a public time slot. There is no restriction whatsoever against that.

I hope that Globovisión, while maintaining its format of round-the-clock news, will introduce many and good news reports about Venezuelan children, about the Venezuelan culture. There are many possibilities to overcome the scheme of merely reproducing the information being generated in a political forum at a specific moment.

Q.: Who will enforce compliance with this law?

A.: The institutions that establish the law: the Directorate's Counsel on Social Communication and the National Commission on Telecommunications will oversee the management of the nation's radio space. The important thing is that those who constitute or are part of those organizations do not commit excesses. That will be guaranteed through the participation of the citizenry. It is wrong to state that a committee of users will become censors or will pressure the journalists.

Q.: How will the independent producer operate?

A.: This is a fundamental figure that already existed in Venezuela. Around here, there are many independent TV and radio producers who have not developed into a powerful industry because they have neither space nor market. This law seeks to guarantee a market for the independent producers who work for national and regional TV and radio stations.

There are many young journalists who don't want to depend on an enterprise but would rather be entrepreneurs themselves, they would rather form their own company. They don't have much capital but have access to a modest line of credit from a public or private institution, even if they don't have the capacity to manage a frequency. With this law, they would be assured that what they produce on the basis of technical quality will find a market in Venezuela.

Q.: The law demands that independent producers be experienced. What is a newly graduated social communicator to do?

A.: A journalist has the academic training to be a radio or TV producer, and he acquires experience through his professional training. Journalists do not only write into a computer; they also work in radio and TV studios. There is another important aspect here, and that's the strong experience gained in Venezuela by community radio and TV stations. Now, they will have a better chance to develop, and some products of that expanded experience will reach the big screen.

Q.: Does this law guarantee a Venezuelan who opposed President Chávez the opportunity to register with Conatel as an independent producer?

A.: It guarantees that no Venezuelan will be asked if he signed the recall referendum one way or another. That's a constitutional right.

Q.: Why did the Inter-American Press Association protest against the law? Did you meet with them?

A.: They protested because of the interests they represent. The IAPA is merely an entrepreneurial forum. It represents only the media owners, not the TV viewers, the radio listeners or the newspaper readers. In fact, the obstinate stance of the Venezuelan publishers and the owners of audiovisual media has been endorsed by the owners of printed media.

I don't think we have anything to discuss with IAPA. In any case, the debate is strictly between Venezuelans. I am willing to continue to discuss the law, even after it is enacted, especially in connection with the drafting of the Code, but only with Venezuelans, because this debate lies within the context of sovereignty. I am not willing to discuss this matter with foreigners.

Q.: Is this law unique in the world?

A.: No. There are laws with other names that broach the same subject in other countries such as France, Britain and Spain.

Q.: Is the practice of journalism impaired by this law?

A.: I think it is strengthened, in terms of the immense possibilities of developing journalism in Venezuela in a transparent and democratic manner, based on the truth.

Q.: Is there a risk that so much regulation will lead to prior censorship?

A.: No. What I do believe is that journalism in Venezuela will be enriched, because there are journalistic genres that are little used nowadays, such as interpretive journalism, and these will have greater coverage from now on.

Q.: Is it true that TV channels and radio stations will have to broadcast five hours of programs made by independent producers?

A.: Yes, programs made in-country. And 60 percent of that production must be made by independent producers.

Q.: Will this law fulfill its task to protect children and adolescents from programs that are violent and have a strong sexual content?

A.: The Constitution gives special treatment to that sector of the population and the law adheres to the Constitution, so that sector has preeminence.

Q.: What will happen to programs, advertising or messages that contain violence or sex?

A.: They will go into the adult time slot, and that's how it's got to be. Remember that during the administration of Luis Herrera a regulation was passed establishing the time blocs. What we did was to bring that regulation up to date and make it into law. President Herrera did not have the political will to enforce it. The prohibition on cigarette and liquor advertisement has been in effect since the period of Luis Herrera.

Q.: Will cable television stations have to broadcast the president's nationwide appearances?

A.: An understanding was reached, regarding placing a frequency or channel at the disposal of the chief executive.

Q.: Which, in your opinion, was the most controversial section of the law, and why?

A.: The law was generally controversial because it was made controversial by the owners of the press, television and radio stations. They denounced, criminalized, stigmatized and demonized the law. On the whole, it was controversial from the title to the final article. The opposition even questioned the title because "it lacked an organic nature."

Q.: What possibility will the users have to opine over the enforcement of the law?

A.: Every possibility. This law creates the Committees of Users, who will register with Conatel and will set up a data bank of users. This also will protect the media because the committees will have legal power to sue television or radio stations over infringement of rights.

Q.: What suggestions did you pick up from the opposition?

A.: Some articles were approved unanimously by the Assembly, which demonstrates the parliamentary majority's willingness to enter into dialogue and reach an understanding.

Q.: Will the independent producers have resources to advance their work?

A.: A fund was established to promote the development of the TV and radio industries. I hope the private banks will be sensitive enough to open a line of credit for the producers. The public banking system will be in a position to grant credit to cooperatives made up of journalists, announcers, etc.

Translated by Progreso Weekly (www.progresoweekly.com)