Is the Price Too High for Beneficial Public Broadcasting in Venezuela?

Standards that aim to hold media conglomerates accountable should be upheld and active enforcement of already existing laws should be applauded rather than frowned upon. Venezuela is providing an example of what many in the U.S. have been calling on the FCC to do for years-abide by the law.

In the U.S. we are often faced with a dynamic and constantly changing media environment. Whether it is the FCC fining a television station for airing nudity as recently happened with the national WB station or the cancellation of a long-running radio program like the Don Imus show, we tend to view these developments as normal.  Yet when similar shifts occur in the media in other countries, we are quick to label them censorship, even when these actions are legally provided for in broadcasting regulations and the constitution.

This is exactly what the U.S. press has done for the last month in response to a recent decision made by the Venezuelan government not to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television or RCTV.  The 20-year license granted to the station, Venezuela’s oldest and most cited for legal infractions, expired on May 27th.  However, RCTV still operates through satellite and cable TV as well as the internet, which the Venezuelan government does not regulate.  The issue is a legal one, and should be judged according to the constitutional principles that guide media licensing in Venezuela, not by foreign journalists and non-governmental organizations who are often influenced more by the political aims of Washington than evidentiary knowledge.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which answers to Congress, makes decisions regarding the licensing of broadcasters.  As in Venezuela, that agency has the power to grant broadcasting rights to any outlet, and to deny those rights to those who do not comply with legal guidelines.  In Venezuela, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), falls under the Executive Branch and similarly oversees the licensing of media outlets.  CONATEL was created in 1991 and reformed under the 1999 constitution.  It is charged with regulating the open-access airwaves, a public good which it is responsible for distributing in an equitable fashion.  Before the RCTV decision, it had avoided carrying out closures or non-renewals, despite the fact that Venezuela’s media is overwhelmingly affiliated with the political opposition. 

The major difference between the FCC and CONATEL is that under FCC regulations, when a non-renewal is recommended, a hearing must take place to evaluate the decision.  In Venezuela however, this is not the case.  Instead, CONATEL has the authority to make renewal decisions based on the station’s broadcasting record.  While this certainly could be amended to mimic US norms, the procedure was constitutionally mandated long before Chavez became president and has functioned without incident for years.  The Washington Office on Latin America, a policy organization who has been highly critical of President Chavez, even recognizes that the decision not to renew RCTV’s license is legal under Venezuelan law.[1] 

Surprisingly absent from debates around RCTV is the fact that our own FCC has closed three TV stations due to legal infractions since 1969 for far less than the serious broadcasting violations committed by RCTV: WLBT-TV in Mississippi, CBS affiliate WLNS-TV in Michigan, and Trinity Broadcasting in Miami.  In fact, if the RCTV renewal had been brought before the FCC it surely would not have taken long for the Commission and Congress to decide its fate with a unanimous and resounding non-renewal decision. 

The FCC bases its renewals on certain factors such as whether or not a station has served the public interest and if they have broken the Telecommunications Law or violated FCC regulations.  Certain norms, if not followed, call into question a station’s license.  Indeed, the FCC cites reporting false information about a crime or a catastrophe as a clear violation and defines it as an act of non-compliance if the station knowingly transmits false headlines that have the ability to cause immediate public damage and direct or real damage to property, the health of the general public, and its security.[2]  

Before you decide whether or not the non-renewal of RCTV’s broadcasting license counts as censorship or is just a matter of regulatory enforcement, lets look at the case.  Try to imagine a mainstream news channel in the U.S. running ads encouraging the public to march to the White House and overthrow our elected president.  Then after the president is kidnapped and a coup government installed, refusing to air public protests calling for the return of the president by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans throughout the country.  RCTV instead broadcast cartoons and movies and issued orders to its staff not to cover actions in favor of Chavez.  Two days later, Venezuela’s democratically elected president was returned to power.  A year later, RCTV, still up and running, began advocating an oil industry sabotage that dealt a severe blow to the domestic economy.  Certainly inciting political violence and conducting news blackouts is unacceptable behavior from the media in any country and doesn’t merit license renewal.

Why, then, has RCTV’s non-renewal been the subject of so much criticism?  There are two reasons.  First, because the station’s owner, Marcel Granier, is an influential member of Caracas’ small wealthy elite and consistently one of President Chavez’s most vocal critics.  Granier controls about 40% of the Venezuelan media, and his influence likely greased the wheels in a case brought by RCTV against the Venezuelan government at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The second reason is that, as a news story, censorship makes for a hot topic. It also conveniently provides an easy way for the opposition to reassert itself internationally in its tireless efforts to oust President Chavez.  Much noise was made when the Organization of American States began examining the RCTV issue, but no U.S. mainstream media reported on that body’s subsequent show of support for the Venezuelan government in its decision not to renew licensing to the notorious broadcaster. 

As protests against the non-renewal and celebration rallies in support of it continue to grace the landscape of Venezuela, a heightened debate has begun about public television that takes into account the interests of the public good.  This has manifested itself in many ways, one of which is the increased willingness of the government to engage in dialog with its critics.  Earlier this month, in a move that many in the United States would call extraordinary, the National Assembly opened its halls to university students opposed to the RCTV decision and offered them a venue for expression.  As the Assembly listened to them air their grievances other students sympathetic to the non-renewal were invited to engage them in respectful debate, but it wasn’t long before the student opposition staged an angry walkout.  The Vice President of Venezuela later extended an invitation to continue talks with the government, but student groups have hesitated to begin the process. 

Currently, similar concerns about public broadcasters’ responsibilities are being raised in the U.S., even from within the Federal Communications Commission.  On June 2, FCC Commisioner Michael J. Copps, wrote in his New York Times Op-Edthat, “Using the public airwaves is a privilege… not a right… Our policies should reward broadcasters that honor their pledge to serve that [public] interest and penalize those that don’t.”  Too often, under pressure from big business media, instead of holding broadcasters accountable through substantive review the FCC deals out what Copps refers to as “postcard renewals” or automatic license renewals.  This certainly doesn’t benefit the public and left the commissioner to wonder, “Do stations that make so much money using the public airwaves, but so plainly fail to educate viewers on the issues facing them, really deserve to have their renewals rubber-stamped?”[3]   

CONATEL recently allotted RCTV’s vacated share of the broadcast spectrum to a new public television station called TVes, the first ever for the Caribbean nation.  Like public broadcasters in the U.S., TVes will maintain editorial autonomy while receiving government funding.  It received an initial investment of $4 million from the government and has an independent board of supervisors. However, in October, in order to diversify funding TVes will hold a meeting with companies to offer the possibility of corporate advertising space. 

Lil Rodriguez, chairwoman of TVes, said in a press conference last month that the TV station would be one that promotes diversity, a plurality of culture and views, and a place for local and undiscovered talent to be showcased. In an effort to further utilize independent producers and artists the station will not produce content, but instead will buy productions. Educational programming for children will also be an important aspect of TVes.

Standards that aim to hold media conglomerates accountable should be upheld and active enforcement of already existing laws should be applauded rather than frowned upon.  Venezuela is providing an example of what many in the U.S. have been calling on the FCC to do for years-abide by the law.  Moreover, changes democratizing access to the representation of diverse communities in the media through the creation of a public television station are long overdue.  Critics of the RCTV non-renewal who condemn these much-needed changes prefer to cry censorship than to consider the legal context in which they occur and the long history of exclusion that has been felt by many for decades.  Through strict enforcement and responsible public broadcasting, quality programming can flourish.  It is still too early to tell, but Venezuela may very well turn out to be a major player in this effort.

Olivia B. Goumbri is the Executive Director of the Venezuela Information Office and the editor of The Venezuela Reader: The Building of a People’s Democracy.

[1] WOLA. “WOLA Criticizes Venezuela’s Handling of RCTV License Non-Renewal”. May 30, 2007.

[2] http://www.fcc.gov/Reports/tcom1996.pdf

[3] The Price of Free Airwaves, By Michael J. Copps, New York Times, June 2, 2007