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Critics of Venezuela's new media laws fear 'dangerous' crackdown

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
Juan Carlos Lopez, correspondent for CNN en Espaņol , interviews President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, in May.
Juan Carlos Lopez, correspondent for CNN en Espaņol , interviews President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, in May.
  • The laws are so vague they could stifle dissent, Index on Censorship says
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation: ISPs could be forced to monitor people
  • Supporters of the changes say they bring Venezuela into line with other countries
  • The laws were passed Monday by the National Assembly

(CNN) -- New laws governing radio, television and the internet in Venezuela "could be very dangerous," anti-censorship campaigners warned Wednesday, two days after the controversial laws passed.

"It could be a license to crack down on any kind of dissent in the media," said Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship, a leading British freedom-of-speech organization.

And because the laws are ambiguous, they "can chill legitimize activities exercised by minority groups, human rights organizations, dissidents, protesters. Those activities are essential to democracy," said Katitza Rodriguez of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Venezuelan National Assembly approved changes to the Organic Telecommunications Law and the Social Responsibility on Radio and Television Law on Monday.

The social responsibility law explicitly states that no broadcaster or internet provider can broadcast things that incite hatred, cause "anxiety or unrest among the public order" or promote the assassination of leaders.

Under the law, internet providers must have mechanisms that, at the request of telecommunications regulator, could restrict messages and access to websites that break laws.

Providers could be fined if they are found to be in violation of the rules.

The goal of the law is to establish "social responsibility" in those who provide, television, radio and internet service. The law affects all text, images, sound or context sent or received in Venezuela.

Reidy, the news director of the Index on Censorship, expressed concern about how the law is written.

"What particularly worries me is that the phrasing (of the law) is so broad -- lines about 'fomenting anxiety' and 'altering public order,' " he said.

"What exactly does altering public order mean? Does it mean trying to put alternative views to the government's? That could be very dangerous," said Reidy.

"Venezuela has independent media which is openly hostile to the government. They should have a right to be openly hostile," he said Reidy.

Rodriguez, the international rights director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has other worries as well.

She's concerned that internet service providers can now be penalized for material people upload to websites they host.

"These measures are very bad for freedom of expression. They affect the work of dissidents, of human rights activists on the ground trying to mobilize a campaign," she said.

And the law can encourage internet service providers to bar users from posting their own videos, photos, links or comments so the companies hosting them don't run afoul of the law, she said.

They might start monitoring communications to protect themselves, she said.

"Internet intermediaries will be forced by fear of liability to monitor or surveil all communications passing through their networks and platforms, and might design their technologies to restrict their users from uploading certain sorts of content," she said.

"This, in turn, will limit citizens' freedom of expression and violate their privacy," she warned.

One of the most controversial amendments to the telecommunications law, which would have created a government-run internet hub, was stripped from the bill before it passed.

Critics said that a hub could be used as a government filtering tool.

As passed, the law classifies the use of telecommunications networks as a "public service," something that could give the government more discretion to regulate the industry.

The social responsibility media law was amended to bring internet providers within its jurisdiction.

The law will restrict what language, sexual content and violence can be broadcast at certain times.

Supporters of the change say it will bring Venezuela in line with other countries that regulate activity on the internet and protect children, while opposition lawmakers say it sets the stage for government control of the internet.

The Miami, Florida-based Inter-American Press Association condemned the changes on Tuesday, saying the represented "a deep and generalized censorship of news content and personal communications."

That "goes against journalists' and media's right to publish and amounts to contempt of the public's right to communicate freely," IAPA President Gonzalo Marroquin said in a statement.

Lawmaker Manuel Villalba, a supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, said that the passage of the laws demonstrates that the Venezuelan government is committed to freedom of expression.

"It is a reform that is perfectly consistent with the law, with the national constitution. It doesn't violate a single right," Villalba said, according to the state-run AVN news agency. "Today, with this approval, the freedom of expression in Venezuela is reaffirmed."

CNN's Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.