Hugo Chávez strikes me as one of those people who says things out loud to hear how they sound. This is ok for a television host, which he is on his own weekly TV show, but it can cause problems for a president.
Over the past year, Chávez famously said of President Bush – the day after Bush came to the UN – “The devil came here yesterday,” helpfully adding: “And it smells of sulphur still today.” He later apologized.
Not long thereafter he described Jesus Christ as “the greatest socialist in history,” he ended a speech to the national assembly by shouting “Socialism or death!” When US officials expressed concern about recent Venezuelan political developments he gently advised: “Go to hell, gringos! Go home!”
And in December of last year when he announced in the course of his annual speech to the National Armed Forces (FAN) his intention not to renew the broadcast license of the Caracas-based TV Network Radio Caracas Television, popularly known as RCTV, whose concession would expire the following May, he colorfully elaborated: “They better go packing”. “Get ready,” he admonished, “start turning the equipment off.” Venezuela, he said lest he be misunderstood, would not tolerate media “at the service of coup-plotting against the people, against the nation, against the national independence and against the dignity of the republic.”
Charges and counter-charges quickly erupted. Censorship, said his critics, citing this as merely the latest move by the would-be caudillo. Non-renewal of a license is not censorship said his supporters. On the government’s side, Venezuela’s minister of communication and information, William Lara, cited the many laws RCTV had broken, not least the showing of “pornography” (erotically charged soap opera) during children’s TV-watching hours, not to mention participation in the 2002 anti-Chávez coup.
On May 27 Chávez made good on his pledge. He declined to renew the license and within seconds of the screens going blank, the insignia of a new state-sponsored broadcaster, TVES, appeared. Protesting opponents and celebrating supporters took to the streets. And after observing that some broadcasters (Globovision) and newspapers were conspiring to spark unrest, Chávez ominously warned that that they should not be inciting violence by “manipulating” public sentiment and threatened to “put them down if they don’t stop.”
On the surface, the RCTV “shut down” (as the US conservative TV channel, Fox News calls it) appears like a Castrovian giant step on the road to censorship. But there is more than one road to what Chávez likes to term, “21st century socialism.” And based on my experience as a member of a January 2007 Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) mission to Caracas, I prefer to believe that it would be a mistake to ignore what may be a Sherwoodian forest for the trees.
Yes, under Chávez the national assembly has increased penalties for defamation and slander. Yes, he persuaded the legislature to give him the power to rule by decree (for 18 months), yes he has moved to consolidate the parties of the left into one, and yes he has taken steps to nationalise various industries.
But at the same time he insists that his goal is to empower the people, that his missions, decrees, nationalisations – which remind me of nothing so much as hostile takeovers always with a more-than-fair negotiating price – and non-renewals are all meant to guarantee bottom-up democracy, and the people’s access to and ownership of the various modes of communication.
I know, I know. Although my fellow CPJ delegates were too polite to say so, even they consider me naive, especially in the context of Venezuela’s problematic “law of social responsibility in radio and television” which, for example, bars the broadcasting of messages that are “contrary to the security of the nation.” But while Chávez never hesitates to attack members of the press by name, and his administration harasses them with defamation suits which are never consummated, unlike Castro’s Cuba where dissent is often the shortest route to prison, nobody is put in prison and dissent seems as omnipresent as the arapas Venezuelans seem to consume with breakfast, lunch and dinner. And besides, where is it written that broadcasting licenses – even 20 year concessions like the one RCTV enjoyed and perhaps abused – should be automatically renewed?
The CPJ delegation ended up condemning the lack of transparency and due process in the RCTV case, although I still find it difficult to say whether and when the non-renewal of a license become censorship. In the US, Fox news had no trouble reporting that Chávez “shut down” the station, and the only question they raised, under the banner of “Thousands marching for free speech in Venezuela,” was to ask a former assistant secretary of state for Latin America under Ronald Reagan: “Will the poor people revolt and throw him out?” The last time I looked, Chávez was re-elected by a clear majority of more than 60%, most of them poor.
In the past, Chávez and his cohort have talked much of stations owned by cooperatives, by communities, by public- private partnerships. Speaking for myself, if what Chávez means by “socialism in the 21st century” (a phrase dismissed by his critics as empty rhetoric), in fact means replacing media conglomerates with such creative coalitions, then I’m interested. I have no idea whether RCTV ‘s replacement, TVES, will be in the brook-no-dissent tradition of Castro and of East European ministries of culture, or closer to the US’s own Public Broadcasting System or even the BBC. If Chavez is smart, he will see to it that contrary voices get equal time, and with luck they will be as provocative, occasionally wrong-headed, off-beat, real and incendiary as his own.