Venezuela is not planning to censor the Web or to shut down social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, officials said on Monday, after President Hugo Chavez called for regulation of the Internet.
Opposition leaders, bloggers and media freedom groups are worried Chavez's socialist government is preparing to clamp down on the networking sites or install tight controls such as those used by Cuba, Iran and China.
Chavez last week said authorities should act against news and opinion site Noticerodigital after it published user comments claiming that a senior minister had been assassinated. He said the OPEC nation's laws must apply to the Internet.
The government is also planning to change the structure of the Internet in Venezuela by installing a unique connection point. It says such a system is more efficient and provides faster access, but critics worry it will lead to censorship.
They say the government is looking to control what appears on the Internet, its not like that -- but those who use the Internet have to be responsible, said Manuel Villalba, president of the science and technology commission in the national assembly.
He said the assembly was not planning to change the law to increase state control of the Internet. Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who on Monday opened an investigation into Noticiero Digital, said the assembly should create new legislation.
Under Venezuelan law, owners of media outlets can be punished with jail sentences for publishing incorrect information, Villalba said, but added the government had no intention of banning sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
That is made up; they are looking to generate opinion. This has never been planned. It's not true, Villalba said.
Users of such social networking sites, which are popular in Venezuela among opponents of Chavez to organize protests and disseminate political views, say the government is trying to force the sites to censor members.
President Chavez...wants speech on this site, or any other via Internet, to be previously censored. It's like making Twitter, Facebook, or other networks and Internet forums responsible for their users' messages, Noticierodigital said, adding that it has over 120,000 contributing members.
Freedom of speech advocates Reporters Without Borders published a global report last week warning of a growing trend toward government attempts to control the Internet in countries from Turkey to Australia.
Applying restriction to the Internet will not resolve the problem of the diffusion of false news stories. This case serves as a pretext for the government to regulate a space it has not controlled up until now, said Benoit Hervieu of RSF in a statement about Venezuela on Monday.
In 2007, Chavez refused to renew the license for television station RCTV after it openly supported a coup against him. RCTV is now battling to survive as a cable-only operator.
The government has also put pressure on opposition TV network Globovision to soften its editorial line and last year closed dozens of radio stations for administrative breaches.
I want to categorically deny that the government wants to put the muzzle on. To say that is just to continue an international campaign to say Venezuela attacks free speech and closes the media, said Aristobulo Isturiz, a leader of Chavez's Socialist party.
This is not about covering anybody's mouth. It's about the media acting responsibly.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)