Will the new Venezuelan media law criminalise online opinion?

Although most of the topics dealt with in this blog tend to be political in nature (let’s face it, law is usually a highly political topic in itself), I try to stay away from some specifically political issues, mostly because I think that there are people making more informed commentary on the nitty-gritty political aspects of information technology law. Although I class myself as left-leaning, I try to keep an open mind and to consider contrary opinions; or perhaps I’m just too wishy-washy for my own good, but I digress. One aspect where I have found my leftist-pinko-commie liberal credentials sorely tested is with regards to Hugo Chavez. I will openly admit that I loathe the guy, to me he is a typical populist Latin American strong-man, the type of caudillo that Gabriel García Márquez successfully spoofed in “El Otoño del Patriarca“. That is why I am often baffled by the acceptance (and outright adoration) he gets from many people on the left in Europe.

Despite my strong dislike for all things Chavez, I have rarely come across a reason to talk about him in this medium. However, Chavez supporters in Congress have presented a draft piece of legislation which can be roughly translated as the Law Against Media Crimes (Proyecto de Ley Especial cotra Delitos Mediaticos). This has been reported by the media as a piece of legislation that attacks opposition journalists, and has therefore been condemned accordingly by some human rights groups and journalist activists.

However, something that has bee under-reported is the fact that the proposed legislation does not only affect journalists, it seems to affect pretty much everyone who expresses an online opinion. Article 2 of the legislation defines media in very broad terms, it reads (translation mine):

“For the purposes of this law, it is understood as social communication media those able to transmit, disseminate, distribute or propagate in a stable and regular manner text, sounds or images to the public, whatever the medium or instrument used.”

It seems clear to me that such broad definition would include all manner of social media toolds, with the only requirement that such medium is published in a periodic manner. To my mind, this includes blogs, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, podcasts, and many other Web 2.0 applications. However, it gets worse in Article 3, where the active subjects of the law are defined. The law states that:

“The following persons could engage in the commission of offenses under this Act, : […] B. Independent producers, artists, journalists, broadcasters, speakers, and anyone else who expresses themselves through any media, be it print, television, radio or any other kind.

Again, this applies not only to opposition journalists, it applies to absolutely anyone who utters a public opinion directed to the public, regardless of the medium used. The article is cleverly worded so as to include pretty much anyone, and again would include all sorts of people engaged in social media channels.

What acts trigger the law? Arts 4-6 define the actions which are criminalised. These are again defined broadly, but also use extremely subjective terms and lawyerly weasel words such as criminalising the expression of opinions that attempt against the “moral health”, “social tranquillity”, “social peace”, “national security”, and all sorts of undefined terms that could apply to any situation that prosecutors do not like. To top things up, Art. 7 forces media owners to reveal sources, as well as reveal the identity of people expressing anonymous opinions. This could be used to force social media to reveal blogger identities.

This is a nasty piece of legislation that will criminalise all sorts of online opinions, and it should be rightly opposed by anyone who values digital rights.

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