Chavez under fire as Venezuela studies media rules

CARACAS Tue Dec 14, 2010 11:49am EST

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez faced a wave of criticism on Monday over bills lawmakers are readying to tighten rules on the Internet and television, part of a legislative onslaught deepening his leftist revolution.

Chavez has gradually increased restrictions on the economy, opponents and the media during almost 12 years in office and is now rushing through more laws that drive forward his vision of "21st century socialism" in South America's top oil exporter.

Refusing to let opposition advances in September elections slow the changes afoot in Venezuela, Chavez announced on Monday that he will legislate by decree for up to 18 months, weakening a new parliament to be formed January 5.

Reforms in two bills due to be discussed this week by the outgoing parliament would pile pressure on opposition TV station Globovision and make it easier for the government to pull the plug on websites that criticize public officials.

"If democratic society in Venezuela does not reject this, only one version of national events will prevail," said the head of Venezuela's opposition alliance, Ramon Avelado.

The Chavez government says it is the victim of a Washington-backed propaganda war and is simply introducing regulations that are normal elsewhere.

But voices from across the political spectrum, within Venezuela and abroad, said the plans endanger free expression.

"The possibility that Globovision could be closed for administrative reasons, which is the spirit of one of these laws, deeply worries us," the U.N. rapporteur for freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, told the TV network.

OPPOSITION TV FEARS CLOSURE

Chavez, criticized by media freedom advocates after pushing TV station RCTV off the air in 2007, has long threatened to close Globovision, a prominent platform for opposition politicians that is fiercely critical of his policies.

Two of its directors have criminal charges against them and now live in the United States.

Last week the government took control of 20 percent of Globovision's shares as part of the liquidation of a bank owned by director Nelson Mezerhane.

Under the proposed telecommunications reform. restricting the transmission of national TV networks via cable, Globovision broadcasts would be largely limited to two cities

An administrative measure introduced in the reform to ratify concessions could lead to Globovision's closure, the station's lawyer said in a letter to parliament.

A separate reform seeks to regulate the Internet with rules to prohibit content that "attacks good customs," "disrespects" public officials or incites violence against the president.

Under that reform the government's telecoms watchdog Conatel could order Internet service providers to restrict access to websites on their servers, which critics say may cause the suspension of Facebook or Twitter services.

"Will any critical article that makes fair comments about opposition or government officials lead to the closure of Aporrea?" asked one blogger who supports the government.

Aporrea.org is a lively left-wing Venezuelan web forum.

The reforms propose a single access point through which to channel Venezuela's Internet traffic.

The government says that will improve network efficiency, but critics say it will make censorship easier.

(Editing by Jackie Frank)