Venezuela, RCTV, And Media Freedom: Just The Facts, Please

Pardon me if I'm just a little astounded by all this noise in the media, the Bush administration, the Senate and the House, about how Venezuela is "attacking" free speech and independent media by not renewing the broadcasting license of RCTV.

Lessons In Curtailing Media Freedom

There are a number of ways to curtail press freedom. You can charge a journalist with murder and put him on death row-Mumia Abu-Jamal, for instance. You can grant special favors, privileges, and access to corporate media giants while raiding and shutting down low-power, independent radio stations, which the FCC does with some regularity. You could arrest independent journalists at anti-war demonstrations-again, a regular occurrence. For instance, I recall my friend and Indy journalist, Jeff Imig, who has been repeatedly threatened with arrest, while recording anti-war demonstrations in Tucson, Arizona, for violating the statute against filming federal buildings. Jeff finally got arrested-for jaywalking! Corporate press, on the other hand, seems to have free reign to jaywalk and film federal buildings at these same events-behavior I and countless others have witnessed!

And then there is the Mother of All Media Manipulations: the blackout engineered by the Bush administration which blocks media from showing the arrival of body bags and coffins of newly dead soldiers “coming home” from Iraq.

Those are some pretty good ways of curtailing freedom of speech. And they’re each and everyone home grown right here in the good ol’ United States of America.

So what’s the deal with Venezuela, anyway?

So, pardon me if I’m just a little astounded by all this noise in the media, the Bush administration, the Senate and the House, about how Venezuela is “attacking” free speech and independent media by not renewing the broadcasting license of RCTV. Perhaps even more disturbing is that this ridiculous assertion is being repeated even among some persons on the Left.

Just last week the Senate passed a condemnation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ refusal to renew the license. Senate Resolution 211 was sponsored by Richard Lugar, (R-IN) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT), with vocal, and disappointing, support from presidential contenders Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barak Obama (D-IL). Rep. Jerry Weller (R-IL) has introduced similar legislation into the House. Puerto Rico’s delegate to the House, Republican Luis Fortuno has outspokenly supported this legislation, which is surprising, considering his complete lack of action or outcry when the FBI was harassing Puerto Rican journalists in 2006.

Anyway, who says bipartisanship is dead?

Joining in these condemnations are a whole host of so-called “press freedom” advocates, lead by the National Endowment for Democracy funded Reporters Without Borders. One would think that the iron hand has fallen and the crackdown has begun in Venezuela.

The facts, please?

Corporate media seems to regularly forget that along with freedom of press is the responsibility of presenting facts to back up their news reporting. Well, dear reader, you are in for a rare treat-a discussion of some actual facts.

The general situation is this: In April of 2002, there was a two-day, illegal coup carried out against Venezuela’s electoral government, which involved the kidnapping and jailing of President Hugo Chavez. There were four major media outlets, along with others, who actively aided and abetted this coup (more later). In the intervening five years, none of them were closed, nor were any of their journalists incarcerated. Rather, the Chavez administration met with them, not to change their editorial slant, but to reach agreements preventing a repeat of such anti-democratic measure and the hyperbolic misrepresentation of facts, and also to discourage such continued infractions as the airing of pornography and cigarette commercials.

Another important fact is that the heads of the media-monopoly in Venezuela, including Marcel Granier -owner of RCTV, also participated in the economic sabotage that occurred between 2002-2003. Yet, no one went to prison for endangering the country’s social and economic stability.

What is truly amazing is that it has taken five years for the Chavez administration to take action in any way against media that helped carry out this coup. Certainly, if the same thing happened in the United States, it wouldn’t be tolerated. Just ask Aaron Burr or Timothy McVeigh what happens when folks plot against the existing, elected government. The fact is.you don’t get away with it, you get punished, and pretty severely. Getting their broadcasting licenses renewed would be the least of their problems.

When RCTV’s broadcasting license came up for review, Pres. Chavez decided, after exhaustive research and study, not to renew the license. Chavez is legally responsible for renewing such licenses under laws which were enacted before he became president. The reasons given for not renewing the license cite RCTV’s participation in the coup, plus the fact that RCTV leads Venezuelan media in infractions of communications laws. RCTV’s problems pre-date the Chavez administration, having been censured and closed repeatedly in previous presidential administrations. RCTV leads Venezuela in its violation of communications codes, with 652 infractions.

Another interesting fact is that our corporate media and distinguished Members of Congress have neglected to mention that on April of 2007 the government of Peru did not renew the broadcasting licenses of two TV stations and three radio stations for breaking their Radio and Television laws. It is obvious that Venezuela continues to be a target.

What, then, are the facts behind the charges made by the Chavez administration?

On the morning of April 11th, 2002, the first day of the coup, the anti-Bolivarian opposition had started a march from the headquarters of the state owned oil company. Across town, supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution were gathered outside the presidential palace. Breaking with its previously announced plan, the opposition changed directions and headed to the presidential palace, greatly increasing the chances of a violent confrontation between the two opposing sides.

During the midst of this confusion, shots rang out from the rooftops, where snipers were firing on both crowds, resulting in the deaths of 18 persons, with 150 wounded. Reports on the opposition’s four largest TV stations indicated the violence was the result of pro-Bolivarian gunmen, and this became the immediate catalyst “justifying” the coup.

However, the testimony of eyewitnesses and videos taken from other angles show that a much different scenario was actually taking place. The following transcript is excerpted from the video documentary, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which was produced for television in Ireland. It sheds important light on the sequence of events. Note particularly the quotation included from RCTV News Correspondent, Andre Cesara.

NARRATOR: The opposition march was fast approaching and some in the vanguard seemed ready for a fight. With thousands of Chavez supporters still surrounding the palace a confrontation seemed imminent. Then at about 2:00 p.m., we saw the opposition march arrive. The army tried to act as a buffer between the two groups. [shouting]

NARRATOR: We moved back into the heart of the Chavez crowds when all of a sudden the firing started. [sirens]

NARRATOR: We couldn’t tell where the shots were coming from, but people were being hit in the head. [gunshots]

NARRATOR: Soon it became clear that we were being shot at by snipers. One in four Venezuelans carry hand guns and soon some of the Chavez supporters began to shoot back in the direction the sniper fire seemed to be coming from.

WITNESS (in Spanish): One of the channels had a camera opposite the palace that captured images of people shooting from the bridge. It looks like they are shooting at the opposition march below, but you can see them, they themselves are ducking. They are clearly being shot at, but the shots of them ducking were never shown. The Chavez supporters were blamed. The images were manipulated and shown over and over again to say that Chavez supporters had assassinated innocent marchers.

ANDRE CESARA, RCTV journalist (in Spanish): Look at that Chavez supporter. Look at him empty his gun. That Chavez supporter has just fired on the unarmed peaceful protesters below.

NARRATOR: What the TV stations didn’t broadcast was this camera angle which clearly shows the streets below were empty. The opposition march had never taken that route. With this manipulation, the deaths could now be blamed on Chavez.

There is no doubt, and no dispute, that RCTV and the three other largest corporate television stations (Globovision, Venevision, and Televen) aided and abetted the ensuing coup throughout the three day period it was being carried out. They knowingly broadcast false and manipulated information, including the lies that Bolivarian supporters instigated violence against demonstrators, and that Pres. Chavez, as a result, had willingly resigned and left the country. Pres. Chavez had not resigned. He had been kidnapped and was being held prisoner by traitors within the Venezuelan military.

During all this, RCTV hosted coup plotters, including co-leader Carlos Ortega of the corrupt and US government supported labor union, the CTV, and had broadcast Ortega’s appeal rallying demonstrators to march on the presidential palace.

RCTV and its partners undertook a complete blackout on reporting any news relating to the more than a million citizens who had taken to the street and surrounded the presidential palace in defense of the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Rather than broadcasting this news, RCTV treated its viewers to reruns of Tom and Jerry cartoons and the movie Pretty Woman. Vice-Admiral Ramirez Perez spoke for all his fellow coup plotters when told a Venevision reporter, “We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you.” His congratulations were premature, however, as multitudes of people in the street, with the aid of truly independent, community based media and patriots within the Venezuelan military were able to defeat this coup without firing a shot, returning Pres. Chavez to his rightful office on April 13, 2002.

On the Job at RCTV-Eyewitness, Andres Izarra Speaks

If any doubts remain as to RCTV’s complicity in this coup, the voice of one of its own producers should lay them all to rest. Andres Izarra had worked as the assignment editor in charge of Latin America for CNN before being hired by RCTV as news production manager for Venezuela’s highest ranked newscast, El Observador. Izarra says, quite clearly, “We were told no pro-Chavez material was to be screened”. Later, RCTV officials would maintain that they could not film pro-Bolivarian demonstrations for security reasons. Even if that were true, Izarra notes, footage of these demonstrations was available from sources such as CNN. RCTV also continued broadcasting reports that President Chavez had willfully resigned and left the country, even though Izarra notes that they were receiving news to the contrary, and that Mexico, Argentina, and France had all issued statements condemning the coup and refusing to recognize the new government. Conversely, the United States welcomed this illegal government.

Izarra says the last straw came for him when, “We had a reporter in Miraflores and knew that it had been retaken by the Chavistas.[but] the information blackout stood. That’s when it was enough for me, and I decided to leave”. Asked what he thought the response should be to this level of disinformation, Izarra replied, “I think their licenses should be revoked”. Having had enough of corporate media’s complicity in blocking news reportage, Izarra now serves as head of Telesur, the joint news channel broadcast by the nations of Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Cuba.

As Patrick McElwee, of Just Foreign Policy, points out: “It is frankly amazing that this company has been allowed to broadcast for 5 years after the coup, and that the Chavez government waited until its license expired to end its use of the public airwaves.” Despite their participation in the coup, the Chavez administration entered into repeated negotiations with RCTV and its partners, Venevision, Globovision, and Television to make sure that such crass manipulation of the news would not occur again, and about other infractions. RCTV refused to reach any agreements.

Despite the nonrenewal of its broadcasting license, cable and satellite broadcasts will still be available to RCTV; moreover they will continue to broadcast through their two radio stations in Venezuela. The new broadcasting license is being given to a public station, TVes-Venezuela Social Television, which will run shows produced mainly by independent parties. The station will be controlled not by the government, but by a foundation of community members, with one chair reserved for a government representative. TVes also hopes to reach into some of the most remote areas of the nation, not covered before by RCTV.

The coup government and media freedom-an alternative?

There is, indeed, an example that shows a real alternative to how Pres. Chavez and the Bolivarian movement deals with freedom of the media and freedom of speech. The two-day coup government of Pedro Carmona revealed that alternative.

But, first, let’s quickly review the general state of media freedom in Venezuela under the presidency of Hugo Chavez. Shortly after Chavez became president, media law was reformed so that it became legal for anyone who could broadcast to do so. In the United States, many fans of underground and independent radio speak fondly of “pirate” radio-low powered, but illegal stations broadcast from small, “renegade” transmitters. There are no “pirate” radio stations in Venezuela, because such stations are legal. Rather, there is a significant Community Media movement-community based and non-profit media production centers run locally by community volunteers.

Corporate and opposition media also have great freedom in Venezuela. In fact, the radio and television airwaves, and the print media as well, continue to be dominated by corporations which support the opposition. There is no shortage of negative opinions and portrayals of Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution-in fact, these remain the standard among the for-profit news and entertainment industry. This concept is strange to those of us in the United States, where official party lines and major news sources are virtually indistinguishable from each other.

But while corporate and community media both retain enormous freedoms in Venezuela, the April 11-13th, 2002 coup, and the two day coup government, provide a much different example. Once interloper Pedro Carmona had declared himself President of Venezuela, among the very first actions taken by the coup government involved the suppression of Venezuela’s non-corporate media. Police troops answering to Carmona raided and shut down Channel 8, the government TV station. They ordered the Catholic Church’s Radio Fe y Alegria to play only music and not report national events, lest they also be shut down. Carmona’s raiders also hit a number of Community Media centers, closing down, among others, TV Caricua, Catia TV, and Radio Perola. Fortunately, reporters from Catia TV and Radio Perola were able to escape and recapture their transmitters. Because of this, they were able to provide mobile broadcasts to the people of Venezuela of the news that RCTV and its partners were blacking out.

Another action taken by the Carmona government was to release the persons who had been arrested in connection with the sniper attacks that instigated the coup. Instead, coup forces arrested independent journalist Nicolas Rivera and accused him of participating in these attacks. The only weapon Rivera had had with him during these demonstrations was a tape recorder-obviously considered a threat by coup plotters. Rivera was freed after the two-day coup was defeated and democratic government was reestablished. However, the scars of his detention remained, with his face disfigured by the torture he had endured while incarcerated. Rivera’s wife said that the forces that raided their home planted a sack of bullets on Rivera, beat both of them, and threatened to kill their children. Yet despite these attacks and threats to this journalist and his family, not one, single international organization in “defense” of press freedoms spoke out on behalf of Rivera. Perhaps it was in this case that Reporters Without Borders found its border.

Also silent about these attacks on freedom of speech and press were both houses of the US Congress, both parties, the Bush administration..no, there was no resolution of any kind condemning the attacks by the coup government on these freedoms. Could that be because coup leaders were funded by Congress, via USAID and the so-called National Endowment for Democracy, and were aided, abetted, and advised by the Bush Administration, the State Department, and the US military? Just maybe these factors were an influence.

Again: the Facts

While Representatives and Senators weep bipartisan crocodile tears about supposed threats to media rights in Venezuela; while US and Venezuelan corporate press crow about the “unfair” targeting of RCTV; while even some segments of the US Left express “concern” about press freedoms in Venezuela; an examination of the facts leads one to this clear conclusion: these folks are full of a substance that emanates from the hind end of a male bovine.

Fact: not renewing the broadcasting license of coup plotters, lawbreakers, and liars like RCTV is the kind of thing it takes to defend Venezuela and make it the haven of free speech, free media, and participatory democracy that it is today.

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