Latin America is no stranger to governmental opposition to the media. Over the years, a number of governments and their leaders have used their power in attempts to reign in media outlets and supervise the information their citizens receive. But Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro may have just passed a new law which makes past previous actions taken by the country – and the whole region, for that matter – seem like child’s play.
The war on the media throughout Latin America has been mounting throughout the centuries as charismatic leaders work to stifle the voices who report competing points of view. However, this isn’t always as obvious as a public denouncement or law which outright restricts the power of journalists. In the case of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia inaction is endangering freedom of expression more than anything. As is indicated in the rankings provided by the World Bank below, Mexico and Brazil were two of the top ten countries in 2016 with the highest levels of impunity for cases involving journalists. In Colombia, 97 percent of cases covering the murders of journalists are in impunity, and 73 cases, being prescribed, will never be brought to justice. Looking at the entire panorama of Latin America and the Caribbean, only 11 percent of homicides of journalists in the last decade were resolved (Higuear 2016). This pattern of ignorance can be just as, if not more, suffocating to the media than when politicians outright share their disdain for the occupation. Without the support of the law enforcement or laws in place to protect journalists, many journalists, especially in these countries with high impunity rates, have chosen to remain silent in exchange for their safety.
Countries like Cuba have monopolized their telecommunications to quietly censor what information is readily available to the public and restrict access to the Internet in the first place. The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) reported that Cuba’s censorship is done using the practice of a “packet injection,” which ambiguously blocks websites without giving an explanation and leaves users unsure if the site they visited was censored or unavailable due to a poor connection. Of course, these Cuban users, who make an average of $30 USD each month, must first come up with $1.50 USD for an hour of Internet browsing, as home service is not yet available in the country (Gámez Torres 2017).
Other administrations have opted to take a less subtle approach to controlling the information that is shared within their countries. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa made headlines when he roasted the media as his “worst enemy” while ripping up newspapers in a public speech, an act which deterred many of his substituents from looking to private media for the truth (Kellam & Stein 2017). He also seized a number of private media institutions, and under his power the Ecuadorian government has expanded its holding of one radio station to an extensive media network. These must legally broadcast a weekly radio show and TV shows created by the government. There have been hundreds of lawsuits against media organizations in Ecuador, the majority stemming from the government.
However, Correa justified these actions by accusing private media as being a mouthpiece for corporate institutions, and claimed many other lawsuits were the result of inadequate citation of sources or internal corruption (Caselli 2012). Although Correa took a markedly antagonistic stance against the media, the actions taken to curb reporting were nothing new amongst his counterparts across Latin America. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner similarly swept media offices for alleged tax fraud and cut back on advertising for state-owned entities which she saw as detractors. Bolivia’s current president sued journalists, as Ecuador’s two most recent presidents have done, for content which criminalizes the president and administration (Kellam & Stein 2017).
The radical change in Ecuador’s status quo for handling the media came later, in the 2013 presidential election. An amendment to the standing electoral law prohibited media from “either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message” (Caselli 2012). This move took a landmark step away from the “tradition” of expressing disdain for what the media was reporting and opened the door for explicit control of media content.
The latest introduction to Venezuelan law reveals that the already inhospitable environment Maduro and Chavez created for journalists and media in the country will only become more dangerous. The Constitutional Law Against Hate (in Spanish, Ley contra el Odio, la Intolerancia y por la Convivencia Pacífica), which was passed last month by the highly controversial National Constituent Assembly (ANC), ambiguously declared illegal any “hate crimes” with penalties of 15, 20, or 25 years in prison for anybody found to guilty of such crimes. Companies like Twitter and Instagram are also vulnerable to sanctions in the event that they fail to erase any publications the government deems hateful or intolerant (El Nacional Web 2017). After the introduction of the law, online outlets were given six hours to pull content that violated the legislature (Rosati & Zerpa 2017).
Although Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez announced that the law was a “tribute to those who died during the protests, [a] product of hatred and intolerance,” a majority see the law as a vague opportunity for the government to normalize censorship and as an umbrella to discipline any number of actions which the regime may consider “hateful” – or rather, contradictory to the goals of Maduro’s administration (Rosati & Zerpa 2017).
One such technicality of the law provides that any political party which does not follow the guidelines of the law within their ranks will be banned (Rosati and Zerpa 2017). While this move to eliminate political opposition is not completely unexpected (last month, the parliamentary immunity of the vice president of the opposition-party, the National Assembly, was removed), the amendment, which was written with very few guidelines, threatens to persecute another group, as well.
While media outlets and political groups are under extraordinary pressure to avoid the drastic retribution permitted under the “Anti-hate Law,” ordinary citizens with no connection to the media or politics may have to exercise caution with what they are posting on their social media. On November 15th, the authority of the National Telecommunications Commission was expanded to monitor social media, as well as traditional media outlets, for content that may violate the law (Mia 2017). Police and members of the military may feel obliged to report these citizens as a result of another passage of the law, which inflicts an eight to ten-year sentence for members of the authorities who fail to enforce the new law (Lozano 2017).
Since Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, 2.1 million Venezuelans have fled the country, and under Maduro’s regime the past two years alone have seen the exodus of an estimated 500,000 people (Leon & Kraul 2017). With Venezuelans facing harsh punishment for the seemingly open-ended criteria the new law presents, one can only imagine that these numbers may spike once more.
Note: Venezuela was ranked third-to-last in this year’s World Press Freedom Index.