Freedom of speech and of the press has been sharply curtailed in Venezuela. Enforcement of prior restraint is not the culprit, but rather the inevitable consequences and risks to anyone who publicly fails to toe the official line. This has led to self-censorship at some media outlets in response to repeated threats, which may be the same or worse than outright censorship. The events of this past year can be seen as part of a systematic campaign to control the content carried in the media, control the type of information society has the right to hear and, finally, restrict freedom of expression. The early years of the Chavez government have not been easy, but this will be the year of the “media battle,” as the president announced in his annual speech to the National Assembly on January 17, 2003. The pretext has not changed: force the media to tell the truth, which naturally must fit the “official story.” Attacks on journalists and the media have intensified. Journalism has become a high-risk profession, and bulletproof vests and gas masks are now standard equipment. Even so, more than a hundred journalists were injured and a news photographer killed while covering the events of April 11, 2002. When the government does not dare to commit these acts itself, it relies on its “Bolivarian Circles.” These violent groups have physically assaulted journalists, photographers and cameramen, destroyed their equipment and torched vehicles owned by media outlets. They also brandish placards intended to intimidate the media, singling out owners and editors as “enemies of the state,” “terror merchants” and “makers of lies” and branding them “coup plotters.” Recently in Colombia the Venezuelan foreign minister accused journalists of plotting to assassinate the chief justice of the Supreme Court, making them an easy target of hatred for Chavez’s supporters. These developments have forced journalists and the media to seek protection from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Inter-American Human Rights Court (IHRC), which have issued requests for interim relief to protect life and limb and guarantee the exercise of freedom of expression. Compliance with these requests has been spotty, however, leading both bodies to repeatedly condemn the government’s stance and failure act in accordance with freedom of the press. It bears repeating that Article 31 of Venezuela’s constitution requires the government to take such action as may be necessary to comply with the decisions of international bodies established under human rights conventions ratified by Venezuela. Although this provision is binding on all branches of government, not just the executive, the Supreme Court has avoided taking the action necessary to ensure strict compliance with IACHR and IHRC measures. It was, in fact, Supreme Court Ruling 1013 of June 12, 2001, that provided the legal underpinnings for restrictions on, and many of the current affronts to, freedom of expression. In addition to several court cases against journalists this year, Venezuela’s government has instituted administrative proceedings against five television stations in response to accurate reporting on statements made by a number of public figures, including members of the National Assembly, in relation to April 11, 2002, and subsequent events. These stations would also be punished for broadcasting the statements of military officers summoned to take an oath before the National Assembly, whom the Supreme Court later exonerated of all guilt. These proceedings are intended as a scare tactic, threatening to temporarily shut the stations down. They also disregard the overriding importance of the “truth in reporting” doctrine in the exercise of press freedom, and seek generally to intimidate the media as a group – print media included – and so control the type of news they can publish or broadcast and keep the public’s thinking on a single track. In his eagerness to restrict press freedom the president has repeatedly claimed that “no freedom is absolute.” Ironically, while journalists and the owners of media outlets are always cognizant that there are certain legitimate limitations on free speech, President Chavez glosses over the fact that Article 337 of Venezuela’s constitution establishes that the right to know is an intangible right that cannot be suspended, even in a state of emergency. This year the government launched a number of different initiatives that have the combined effect of encouraging prior restraint. Punitive measures act as an inhibiting mechanism, to prevent certain information and ideas from being published. Another such initiative is a bill called the Citizen Participation Act, which would create a Media Oversight Council made up of community, neighborhood or parish representatives with the task of ensuring truth and objectivity in the news. Another bill is the Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Act, which seeks to quell political criticism on the pretext of protecting children. These laws have great potential for abuse and would be enforced by an agency under the full control of the executive branch that would seek to stamp out all political dissent. One bill classifies as a “very serious offense,” punishable by substantial fines or suspension or closure of the media outlet, the publication of speech that promotes or incites lawbreaking, even though this is not a crime. It also disregards the precedent set in The New York Times v. Sullivan, which established free speech principles that are now widely accepted, and numerous determinations by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that insult laws are inconsistent with the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. It classifies as a “very serious offense” the publication of speech that incites disobedience of such institutions and authorities as the president, cabinet ministers, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, ombudsman, attorney general and the comptroller general. The upshot is that the media will never be allowed to act as the “guardians of liberty.” The severe economic crisis in Venezuela has forced the government to restrict foreign exchange since last January, thus preventing all Venezuelans from accessing the foreign currency they need to import goods and pay for services abroad. The president has announced that these foreign exchange restrictions will be used as a “carrot and stick:” there will be no dollars for “coup plotters” or companies that joined the national strike on December 2, 2002, and February 2, 2003. The president has also announced that importing newsprint is not a priority, thus enabling him to restrict freedom of expression in express violation of Article 13(3) of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. All these activities are part of the government’s declared war on ideas, especially the political ideas of opponents of the current regime. That is the motive for the attacks on the press, arrest warrants issued for many opposition politicians, and harassment of public and private universities, including threats to take some of them over.