CARACAS -- Some Venezuelan television channels began altering their programs yesterday, citing fears of penalties under a new law restricting violence and sexual content over the airwaves.
The law, which took effect yesterday, limits broadcasts deemed to be obscene or violent and details a range of offenses for which the government may fine noncompliant media organizations.
The private TV channel Globovision blocked out photographs of street violence with white space when it displayed the day's newspapers, filled with coverage of Wednesday riots that police said left at least 25 injured.
"We cannot show the images," said Carlos Acosta, who hosts the morning news program "Front Page," as cameras focused on several Caracas newspapers.
President Hugo Chavez signed the Law for Social Responsibility in Radio and Television on Tuesday night, following its approval by legislators last month.
Critics say the law threatens press freedoms and have dubbed it the "gag law."
But Chavez and his supporters say they are committed to freedom of expression. They say the changes will ensure more responsible programming and television that is suitable for children and adolescents.
The law distinguishes between news and opinion programming. It also bans "vulgar" language, images of sex, and "psychological" or physical violence from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. One clause prohibits "images or graphic descriptions that show real violence or its consequences." The law allows the government to impose fines and permits regulators to close down stations that break the rules.
Officials defend the law as a way to improve the quality of television and radio programs and say it is similar to laws in other countries. The law, which includes 31 articles, requires at least 50 percent of a radio station's programming to be Venezuelan music and at least 85 percent of its commercials to be Venezuelan-made.
Desiree Santos, a lawmaker in Chavez's governing party, said the law allows TV channels to air coverage of events that can turn violent. She cited coverage of Wednesday's riots, which erupted when police tried to clear vendors from parts of the downtown.
"What they cannot do is show morbid images, then repeat them over and over again," Santos said.
Members of the media who suggest they are being forced into self-censorship are "exaggerating," she said.
Some TV hosts disagreed. "We are adjusting everything at the channel to [respect] the law," Globovision talk show host Leopoldo Castillo said in a telephone interview. "We are walking on thin ice."