It is Easy to See the Speck in the Other’s Eye

People have been collectively tearing their hair out all over Latin America because of the Venezuelan government's decision not to renew the broadcasting licence of that country's most popular television station, RCTV. But they ignore the media situation in the rest of Latin America.

MONTEVIDEO, May 30 (IPS) – People have been collectively tearing their hair out all over Latin America because of the Venezuelan government’s decision not to renew the broadcasting licence of that country’s most popular television station, RCTV.

Three former Panamanian presidents — Mireya Moscoso, Guillermo Endara and Ernesto Pérez-Balladares — are planning to lobby the Organisation of American States (OAS) to get its general assembly to discuss the case in its meeting next weekend.

And Peruvian President Alan García said, with respect to the decision not to renew the concession for RCTV, which has been on the air since 1956: “In Peru, something like this would never happen.”

Something like what? he might well be asked. Many in Venezuela argue that RCTV (Radio Caracas Televisión) dug its own grave with its vociferous opposition to the government of leftist President Hugo Chávez, which went as far as backing the April 2002 coup that briefly toppled the president.

In neighbouring Colombia, which has been in the grip of civil war for nearly half a century, journalist Juan Gossaín with the RCN Radio station said in an interview with President Álvaro Uribe: “Your remarks on respect for freedom of the press lead me to suppose, for example, that you would not strip RCTV of its broadcasting licence.”

To which the president responded: “I would not do that to anybody. Or rather, let them exercise journalism even without a licence; they can say whatever they want; they can operate wherever they want.”

But the rightwing Uribe cannot shut down opposition TV stations for the simple reason that there aren’t any, by contrast with Venezuela, where most privately-owned media outlets are openly opposed to the government.

Earlier, however, in October 2004, the Uribe administration closed the public Instituto de Radio y Televisión (Inravisión), which broadcast on three stations. Its programming included educational and cultural content, a daily interview programme on social movements, and documentaries that were often awkward for the government.

The president made the announcement about Inravisión on a Monday, and the following Thursday “the police came in and evicted the employees that same day,” Milciades Vizcaíno, a sociologist by training who worked for nearly 27 years in educational programming, which was eliminated with that measure, told IPS.

The Colombian government argued that Inravisión was “inefficient.”

“But the underlying problem was the strength of the union (of Inravisión employees),” said Vizcaíno, author of “University and the Media: From the Welfare State to the Market”, which was published in April.

The book analyzes a process that was the mirror reflection of what is occurring now in Venezuela, where the privately-owned RCTV’s broadcast frequency was assigned to a newly created public station.

Inravisión was replaced by Radio Televisión de Colombia (RTVC), which “outsources” activities by means of concessions and contracts, thus preventing the creation of an employees’ union and cutting operating costs by 72 percent. The transmitters are operated by another company, Telecom.

During an October parliamentary debate led by Senator Gustavo Petro (leader of the main opposition party, the leftwing Democratic Pole) on the ties between the far-right paramilitary militias and politicians in the northern provinces of Sucre and Córdoba, the Canal Institucional (Institutional Channel), which is now run by RTVC and frequently broadcasts parliamentary hearings and debates, inexplicably went off the air in both provinces.

When faced with complaints, RTVC referred the issue to Telecom. But “no one there could explain why it happened,” Hernán Onatra, the senator’s press officer, told IPS.

“Not only the public TV station, but also cable stations briefly stopped broadcasting the Canal Institucional in some parts of Bogotá and in big cities like Cúcuta (in the northeast), without any explanation. We know that from reports from viewers themselves, during the debate or the day after,” added Onatra.

In Honduras, meanwhile, President Manuel Zelaya ordered all TV and radio stations to broadcast 10 daily one-hour programmes during prime time, starting Monday, to counteract what he called “misinformation” on his administration provided by the press.

Honduran law stipulates that nationally broadcast messages (known as “cadena nacional”) can only be used to call elections or in case of natural disasters or emergencies.

Zelaya’s decision was reminiscent of the frequent use of national broadcasts in the 1970s, when the military held power, and has drawn fire from journalists’ associations, the media, and even the president of parliament, Roberto Micheletti.

Political analyst Juan Ramón Martínez told IPS that the decision “is an attack on freedom of expression” and that “not even the military were as abusive as what the current government is announcing.”

Edgardo Escoto, the government beat reporter for the opposition radio station Circuito Radial Voces, commented to IPS that he has been censored by presidential spokespersons. “They refuse to talk to me; they hide the president’s itinerary from me,” he said.

In Nicaragua, the last media outlet to lose its broadcasting licence for apparently political reasons was the La Poderosa radio station in 2002, during the administration of Enrique Bolaños, when the station’s equipment was seized without any legal proceedings.

La Poderosa was an outspoken critic of the government, and aligned with former president Arnoldo Alemán, who has been convicted of corruption.

Under the government of Alemán (1997-2001), newspapers that were critical of the government, like La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, reported that they suffered harassment by tax authorities and a boycott by the government, which cancelled all official advertising, after publishing articles on corruption among public officials.

RCTV is not the only media outlet that has stopped operating in Venezuela as the result of a government measure. During the April 2002 coup in which Chávez was removed from power for two days, the public station Canal 8 was shut down.

And in 2003, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, an outspoken Chávez opponent, also closed down the community station Catia TV for several days.

That is why the government and its supporters argue that only the opposition has closed down media outlets in Venezuela. Former information minister Andrés Izarra, who is president of the Venezuela-based international TV network Telesur, pointed out to IPS that in the case of RCTV, the station “was not closed down; what happened was that its concession was not renewed.”

With respect to the question of freedom of speech, Chávez supporters also note that during the April 2002 coup, private stations like RCTV refused to provide coverage of the Apr. 13 popular uprising that swept the president back to power with the support of loyal army troops, airing instead reruns, cartoons and old Hollywood films.

Furthermore, RCTV and other stations only aired anti-Chávez propaganda and coverage of anti-government marches during a two-month business and oil industry shutdown in 2002-2003 aimed at bringing down the president.

But Ciro García, president of the chamber of broadcasters, remarked to IPS that the decision against RCTV “has placed in a difficult situation more than 150 private radio stations that are awaiting the renewal of their licences.”

Another incident that the opposition in Venezuela complain about and invoke to accuse Chávez of undermining freedom of speech was a two-day closure and 13,900 dollar fine imposed on the opposition-aligned El Impulso paper in the west-central city of Barquisimeto in October 2005, for tax evasion.

In addition, RCTV was fined on numerous occasions, some of which involved its failure to cooperate with the tax laws. The 24-hour news station Globovisión has also been fined, and some of its satellite equipment was compounded two years ago after an inspection discovered irregularities. And neither of the stations received official advertising.

But “if we look at the diversity of the media, there is much more freedom of expression in Venezuela than in Chile, for example,” Felipe Portales, who runs the Freedom of Expression Programme at the public University of Chile’s Institute of Communication and Image, told IPS.

Although no arbitrary measures against the media have been reported in Chile in recent years, freedom is restricted by the concentration of ownership in a few hands, according to Portales and the director of the Fucatel Media Observatory, Manuela Gumucio.

“With the exception of Cuba, Chile is the country that has the least freedom of expression in Latin America, in terms of media plurality,” with “a situation that is worse than what we experienced before the end of the dictatorship” of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, said Portales.

The coverage of the RCTV case is one illustration of that, she said. “The Chilean media have only shown one version, the anti-Chávez side. We don’t have the necessary elements to form an opinion on it,” she argued.

Both Portales and Gumucio also blame the lack of diversity on the unequal distribution of official advertising.

And in Cuba, like in Colombia — although for different reasons — there are no opposition stations that could be closed down.

Private ownership of the media in Cuba came to an end in the 1960s, after President Fidel Castro took power in the 1959 revolution. The media are entirely controlled by the governing Communist Party.

Dissidents, who are labelled “mercenaries on the payroll of the empire” (the United States) by the socialist government, have no access to the media. A group of journalists not in line with the government or openly opposed to it were handed stiff prison sentences in 2003 on charges of transmitting or providing information to “enemy” media outlets.

The only exception are the Catholic magazines Palabra Nueva and Vitral, founded in 1994 in the western province of Pinar del Río, whose editorial team fell into crisis early this year, however, after the arrival of the new bishop, Jorge Enrique Serpa.

Vitral became known for its critical view of conditions in Cuba. But Serpa decided that the publication should avoid being “aggressive” and should be less anti-establishment.

Censorship in Mexico, meanwhile, which was common during much of the time that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was in power from 1929 to 2000, began to ease in the mid-1990s.

But the Diario Noticias newspaper in the southern state of Oaxaca, which has been published for 31 years and is openly critical of the widely criticised state Governor Ulises Ruiz, has been the target of attacks since 2005, including assaults on its journalists and attempts to evict the staff from the paper’s offices.

And Radio Monitor, which has operated since1975, was one of the few that confronted the years of censorship under the PRI. Now its owner, José Gutiérrez Vivo, says the governing National Action Party (PAN) is punishing the station for criticising the government by reducing the amount of official advertising it receives and denying it interviews and information.

In Uruguay, the only party that ever revoked a broadcasting licence was the centre-right National Party, which has now called on the governing leftist Broad Front to issue a statement condemning the Venezuelan government’s decision in the RCTV case.

In its refusal to do so, the Broad Front has noted that the government of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-1995) of the National Party was the only one to take a similar measure in the history of Uruguay, and “without waiting for the licence to expire,” said Broad Front Senator Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro.

In 1994, Lacalle stripped the CX 44 Radio Panamericana station of its licence after it urged the public to take part in a demonstration, which was the target of a harsh crackdown, against the extradition to Spain of three citizens from that country accused of belonging to the Basque separatist group ETA.

* With additional reporting by Constanza Vieira (Colombia), Daniela Estrada (Chile), Patricia Grogg (Cuba), Thelma Mejía (Honduras), Diego Cevallos (Mexico), José Adán Silva (Nicaragua), Humberto Márquez (Venezuela) and Darío Montero (Uruguay).