By Tracey Begley

A demonstration in support of TVes after it took over a former RCTV channel in Venezuela. By Maiquel Torcatt.

Both Argentina and Venezuela have media laws that seek to prevent small groups of private companies from controlling media outlets and to foster public support for the government. Such laws may be justified given the countries’ history with coup d’états and corporate influence over the media. Nevertheless, the laws’ severe restrictions have, in some instances, amounted to censorship. Meanwhile, Bolivia is considering similar reforms to its laws.

On its face, Venezuela’s 2004 Social Responsibility Law appears to pursue legitimate governmental aims. The law requires every station to air at least seven hours of national programming a day, which may include cultural and educational shows. Four of the seven hours must be produced by national companies or organizations. Moreover, the law indicates the number of times a day that media stations must play the national anthem. Regulations like these are meant to foster support for the national government by ensuring that the public hears significant amount of programs that portray the government and country in a positive light.

Opponents to the law argue that it hinders freedom of expression. The law provides for harsh penalties for non-compliance, including confiscation of airtime and imposition of fines. Further, it prohibits any reference to violence, illegal activity, or political uprising. Finally, in January 2010 President Chavez used the law to take six stations off air, including Radio Caracas Television International (RCTV), Venezuela’s largest private media source. RCTV is known to be highly anti-Chavez and supported the 2002 coup d’état attempt against the President. Chavez justified taking RCTV off air by saying it did not broadcast the entirety of his lengthy speeches as required by the Social Responsibility Law.

Similarly, in December 2009 Argentine legislators passed the Audio-Visual Communications Law with the goal of diversifying the types of entities that own the media. The law requires that private companies, the government, and civil society each control one third of radio and television channels in order to encourage local broader participation in the media and to diversify broadcasting. The United Nations has been supportive of Argentina’s initiative, calling it the “democratization” of Argentina’s media by making broadcasting accessible to a broader range of society.

Although the law has not yet come into force, it seems to regulate broadcasting through different means than the Venezuelan law. Whereas the Venezuelan law explicitly prohibits the broadcast of anything anti-government and pro-violence, the Argentine law, by redistributing control of the channels, limits previously existing stations from broadcasting to their full extent. For example, if a private station previously controlled forty percent of channels, and under the new law only has only a third, some of its programs must be taken off the air. While promoting democratic principles through greater social participation in the media, the Argentine law provides the government with more regulatory power over the national media than it has previously had.

A third country, Bolivia, may also reform its media laws. During his reelection acceptance speech in September 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that he is considering new media laws that would redistribute control of broadcasting channels so that corporations do not own all channels. As Latin American governing parties try to foster national support, they are strategically turning to media outlets to help gather support, while also trying to ensure that the media is not used against them.

The regulatory trends over media in Latin America show efforts to democratize the media and make it accessible to groups outside of the powerful media corporations, but the regulations might at times come close to censorship. The right to freedom of expression is protected and prior censorship is prohibited by Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. The Convention does, however, allow for censorship of material that might pose a threat to national security or incite lawlessness or war. Emerging Latin American media regulatory laws should be checked against the American Convention on Human Rights to ensure that the government regulations do not interfere with the freedom of expression.