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Opinion and Analysis: Politics | Venezuelan Media

Hugo Chávez and RCTV: Censorship or a legitimate decision?

The government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez chose not to renew the license of the audiovisual group Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), which will expire May 28, 2007. This decision, which is completely legal, created a lively debate in the international press, which has become a mouthpiece for the Venezuelan opposition and immediately denounced a case of "censorship." [1]

RCTV is a private group whose principal activity consists in denigrating the policies of the Bolivarian government. Chávez has accused repeatedly, and not without reason, the nation's four main TV channels (Globovisión, Televen, Venevisión and RCTV, which control about 90 percent of the market and enjoy a de-facto media monopoly) of carrying out a "psychological war" against his administration.
 
For their part, those media have given overt proof of a hostility bordering on fanaticism toward the Venezuelan president, ever since he came to power in 1999. They have never stopped questioning the legitimacy of the government and casting doubt on the popular support he logically enjoys. The private media constantly invite to their programs oligarchic oppositionists and putschist military officers who proclaim subversion and the overthrow of the constitutional order. [2]

Marcel Granier, president of the 1BC Group, which controls about 40 radio and TV channels nationwide and owns RCTV, denounced what he called a violation of the channel's rights. "This position is illegal, violates rights and attacks freedom of expression and human rights," he complained. Nevertheless, Venezuelan law stipulates that broadcast signals belong to the State, which has the right of concession, while the infrastructures, the materials and the sites of the channels are private property. [3]

The Venezuelan government immediately responded to the accusations of RCTV's president: "Marcel Granier has devoted himself to stomping on the rights of the users [...] in the belief that he is above the rule of law, which renders him unqualified to operate an open-signal TV network." According to the government, Channel 2 will hereafter be the patrimony of the entire people, not just of small groups in "the media oligarchy." [4]

But it is not RCTV's recalcitrant opposition that led Venezuelan authorities to decide not to renew the concession of the nation's oldest channel. The main reason is this: RCTV participated in the coup d'état against President Chávez on April 11, 2002. "The determining role of RCTV during the coup d'état of 2002 must be remembered," stressed William Lara, Minister of Communications and Information, who added that "that irresponsible attitude at RCTV has not changed." [5]

RCTV's participation in the constitutional breakdown of April 2002 was so extensive that its production manager, Andrés Izarra, who opposed the coup, immediately resigned so as not to become an accomplice. Testifying before the National Assembly, Izarra stated that on the day of the coup and in the following days he received a formal order from Granier "to not broadcast any information about Chávez, his followers, ministers, or any other person who might be connected to him." [6]

William Lara said the decision reached by the government is "an irreversible fact whose constitutional, legal and regulatory basis is solidly incontrovertible." The minister stressed that no danger threatens freedom of the press: "The increase in the number of radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, Internet pages and their diversity of political orientation is the best guarantee that Venezuelans will continue to enjoy a pluralistic information." [7]

President Chávez stressed that RCTV did not meet the requirements "to receive anew its concession from a State that is serious, responsible and committed to its people." According to him, "good journalism and freedom of expression" were threatened by media such as RCTV. The channel's signal may be awarded to a group of community media, which will allow a democratization of the television spectrum and, above all, according to Chávez, "empower the people, give a power of communication to those who almost never have a voice." [8]

The Venezuelan people accepted the news positively. It has never really forgiven the private media for their attempt to overthrow the president, who rose to power democratically and has received the people's trust in 12 consecutive elections and referenda. Most people unanimously condemned the attitude of the private TV stations that, instead of reporting Chávez's return to power on April 14, 2002, broadcast movies and cartoons uninterruptedly.
 
According to Barbara Vecci, of the Committee of Users of the Communications Media (Cumeco), the signal "must be opened to cooperatives of independent journalists and national producers." To her, the private media "are muzzling freedom of expression," a feeling widely shared by the nation's citizens. [9]

After strong pressure from Washington, the Organization of American States (OAS) sided with the media conglomerate. It criticized the decision of the Venezuelan government through its Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, thus meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs and violating Article 2 of the OAS Charter. "The adoption of an administrative measure to shut down an information channel gives the impression of a kind of censorship against freedom of expression," the official declaration read. [10]

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister condemned Secretary General Insulza's words and accused him of bowing to the demands and pressures of national and international sectors opposed to President Chávez. He demanded that Insulza show more respect toward the legitimate decision of the government and reproached the Secretary General for falsifying the reality in the RCTV case.
 
"The Secretary General improperly criticizes a member country of the Organization of American States for fully exercising its proper rights and refusing to kowtow to the blackmail of the true enemies of freedom of expression, of the people's right to be accurately informed, and of democracy itself, among whom are the proprietors of that company, who have promoted vain attempts to overthrow a legitimate government, instigating people to hatred and violence and promoting economic sabotage," the minister said.

"It is worrisome that the OAS Secretary General, instead of defending a legitimate and democratic government such as Venezuela's, echoed unfounded accusations from communications media that have obviously turned their backs on their social function by breaking journalistic ethics and attempting permanently against Venezuela's democratic institutions." [11]

President Chávez also denounced the meddling. "Now he says that the Venezuelan government should not implement its decision to not renew RCTV's concession," he said, referring to Insulza. Chávez lamented the OAS's veiled threats, which included a warning that the decision would have "political implications."
 
"A Secretary General who reaches that level should resign his post out of dignity. [...] I hope I can meet him in Managua [during the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega.] I would read him the riot act in front of all the presidents and the world," Chávez said, reminding everyone that Venezuela is a free and sovereign nation. [12]

A sector of the ecclesiastical hierarchy linked to the opposition also criticized the government's decision. Chávez also responded to that criticism: "The State respects the Church; the Church should respect the State. I do not want to return to the days of confrontation with the Venezuelan bishops, but that's not up to me; it's up to the Venezuelan bishops." [13]
 
The President took advantage of the occasion to emphasize the Church's contradictions. "How can we understand this Catholic hierarchy, which is incapable of criticizing the coup d'état in April 2002?" he asked. "They never criticized it or criticized what these channels did. They never criticized it. I never saw a single Venezuelan bishop criticize the coup d'état." [14]

The accusation that the Bolivarian government tramples freedom of the press would bring a smile to the face of anyone who knows the Venezuelan reality and the pernicious role of the country's private media. Ever since Chávez came to power, only one channel has been shut down temporarily for political reasons. It was Channel 8 and it was shut down by the fascist junta responsible for the famous 47-hour coup d'état April 11-13, 2002, a shutdown that was warmly applauded at the time -- by RCTV.

During the 2006 presidential campaign, Chávez launched the idea of submitting the renewal of concessions to private channels to a popular referendum. Instead of applauding this democratic initiative, the proposal seems to worry the owners of the commercial media, the international press and Washington. Do they perhaps fear popular will? In any democracy worthy of the name, isn't the population sovereign?

The real question is not to wonder if the RCTV affair constitutes (or not) a case of censorship because, in view of the facts, that accusation lacks a foundation. The question that should have appeared on Page One of all the international media is the following: How is it possible that Globovisión, Televen, Venevisión and RCTV, all of which participated in the coup d'état against President Chávez, are still under the control of the putschists? What would happen to French channels TF1, Canal+ and M6, for example, if they openly supported the overthrow of President Jacques Chirac?

Notes

[1] Simón Romero, «A debate over censorship begins in Venezuela,» El Nuevo Herald/New York Times, Jan. 4, 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fabiola Sánchez, «Government is asked to heed OAS plea in issue over [TV] channel,» Associated Press, Jan. 5, 2007.

[4] Bolivarian News Agency, «Minister Lara says Granier stomps on the rights of users,» Jan. 6, 2007.

[5] Simón Romero, op. cit.

[6] Eva Golinger, The Chávez Code (Havana: Social Sciences Publishing House, 2005), pg. 125.

[7] Bolivarian News Agency, «Decision to not renew RCTV's concession is irreversible,» Jan. 2, 2007.

[8] Associated Press, «President Chávez rules out renewing TV channel's concession,» Jan. 4, 2007.

[9] Bolivarian News Agency, «Users propose public television for the air space occupied by RCTV,» Jan. 4, 2007.

[10] Chris Kraul, «Chavez Denounced for Canceling TV License,» Los Angeles Times, Jan. 6, 2007.

[11] Bolivarian News Agency, «Government urged Insulza to retract his words for falsifying reality in the RCTV affair,» Jan. 6, 2007.

[12] Bolivarian News Agency, «Chávez announced he will denounce to the world Insulza's interference,» Jan. 8, 2007.

[13] Associated Press, «Chávez asks Venezuelan Church to respect the State,» Jan. 10, 2007.

[14] Bolivarian News Agency, «Chávez invited Catholic Church officials to stand in his shoes,» Jan. 8, 2007.

Frenchman Salim Lamrani is a researcher at Denis-Diderot University in Paris, specializing in U.S.-Cuba relations. He is a regular contributor to Rebelión. This article was translated into English by Progreso Weekly.