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Venezuelan lawmakers OK Chavez's request to govern by decree

By the CNN Wire Staff
President Hugo Chavez is seeking decree power for up to a year. He says he needs the power after devastating floods.
President Hugo Chavez is seeking decree power for up to a year. He says he needs the power after devastating floods.
  • NEW: Approval is on first reading of the bill; the second and final reading comes Thursday
  • NEW: Opponents say Chavez is trying to circumvent a new parliament less friendly to him
  • Critics say other proposed reforms will give government power to censor the internet
  • Supporters say the rules will help manage what is broadcast into the country

Caracas, Venezuela (CNN) -- Venezuelan lawmakers Tuesday granted preliminary approval to President Hugo Chavez's request to govern by decree for up to a year, Venezuelan media reported.

A final vote on the measure, which Chavez says will allow him to act more quickly to help Venezuelans hurt by flooding that killed 40 people and left tens of thousands homeless, is expected Thursday.

But opponents say the move is aimed at shoring up Chavez's power ahead of a new parliament that convenes on January 5 and has a decidedly smaller majority for his United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Ruling by decree would provide Chavez with a way to circumvent a less friendly national assembly for a full year, they say.

"Now, I need special powers that the Constitution gives me to make, in the coming days, special laws to face the emergency of these days," Chavez said, according to the state-run AVN news agency.

Lawmakers are also considering reforms that opponents say will make it easier for Chavez to clamp down on critics. Two of them -- changes in the the Organic Telecommunications Law and the Social Responsibility in Radio and Television Law -- are garnering much attention.

A proposed new article in the Organic Telecommunications Law calls for the creation of government-run internet hub.

"The state will create an access point to the internet for the internet service providers in Venezuela with the purpose of managing the traffic with origin and destination in Venezuela," the document states.

Critics say such a hub could be used effectively as a censorship tool, and they have brought comparisons to China, Cuba and Iran.

Another proposed change in the law seems aimed at opposition broadcaster Globovision, and could limit its transmission to two areas.

The social responsibility media law, meanwhile, may be amended to include internet providers as those who fall within its jurisdiction.

The goal of the law is to establish "social responsibility" of those who provide, television, radio and internet service. The law affects all text, images, sound or context sent or received in Venezuela.

The social responsibility law would split the day into different periods, with restrictions on what language, sexual content and violence can be broadcast.

It also explicitly states that no broadcaster or internet provider can broadcast things that incite hate, cause "anxiety or unrest among the public order," or promote the assassination of leaders.

A proposed amendment states that internet providers must have mechanisms to restrict messages and access to websites that break laws at the request of telecommunications regulator.

The changes set the stage for government control of the internet, opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia told CNN en Espaņol. Regarding the proposals to the Organic Telecommunications Law, any modifications must be made available for "public consultation" before being enacted or otherwise violate the constitution, he said.

Another measure that lawmakers are weighing would impose financial sanctions on television stations and websites that violate new government rules. The sanctions can be as high as 10 percent of an offender's gross income.

"For the first time, the government is taking a step to control what is being debated, what is being opined, what is being said on the internet," said Andres Canizalez, a journalist and investigator at the Andres Bello Catholic University.

Financial sanctions under the new rules could be so severe that newspapers or television stations would be forced to close, he said.

But Earl Herrera, a legislator from Chavez's United Socialist Party, defended the proposed changes.

"The internet is no one's territory. In almost all countries there are rules with respect to what is transmitted online. For digital journalism what we are going to do is include some rules. There is no censorship in any way because these rules are constitutional," he said.

Another pro-Chavez lawmaker, Manuel Villalba, denied that the proposed changes were targeting Globovision or were the first steps for more government control.

"The world will witness that the campaign that seeks to manipulate and confuse and make the world believe that in Venezuela there are restrictions is going to fall," Villalba told CNN en Espaņol.

"I think that they want to limit our freedom and arrive at what we're seeing in Cuba, restriction in all aspects," educator Mirna Romera said.

Journalist Maria Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this report.