Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Freedom of press in Venezuela

Free Speech and RCTV in Venezuela

May 30, 2007 9:30 | by James Suggett

There is a heated and complicated debate going on right
now over the decision by the Chavez-led government of
Venezuela not to renew the television concession which
for years has pertained to Radio Caracas Television
(RCTV). The issue has captured international attention,
but has not been dignified by accurate reporting in the
dominant international media.

The accusations of "restrictions on the freedom of
speech", which appear frequently in the international
media, are not only inaccurate, but also simply
frightening. Frankly, the discrepancy between what is
reported internationally and what is happening on the
ground raises concern that even respected groups like
Human Rights Watch, the BBC World News, and CNN are out
of touch with the real struggles of social movements in
the Global South.

In Venezuela, as in most democracies, the right to
broadcast TV and radio are public commons, which belong
in the hands of the public in some way. Since
representative democracy is such a predominant
political model at this point in history,
democratically elected governments like the one in
Venezuela are supposed to control the public
communications commons. The government gives
concessions to private parties to use these commons
responsibly, and the government has the right to take
them away in the public interest at any time.

The decision not to renew the concession to RCTV was
made after a thorough investigation of their
journalistic ethics including accuracy, objectivity,
and their compliance with the Law on Responsibility in
Television and Radio (which was denounced by Human
Rights Watch for being a restriction of free speech).

Since 1999 RCTV has spread blatant lies and outlandish
manipulations of information directly attacking Chavez.
It has broadcasted sexually explicit and other
inappropriate material in such violation of the law
(652 cases) that any honest assessment leads to the
conclusion that their journalism is an attack on public
health and decency. Fox News is a kitten compared to

Beyond this, RCTV were leaders in the 2-day coup in
April 2002. This coup was not only one that used the
military, but also the media. During the coup, RCTV
cancelled their usual programs and broadcast a two-day
string of black and white fuzziness, Hollywood movies,
cartoons, and infomercials. This is widely confirmed by
Venezuelans. When RCTV finally covered the coup, they
reported that Chavez had signed his resignation and
peacefully left his post as president after his
supporters had opened fire on an innocent opposition
march. The images RCTV broadcasted of the violence
among the marchers were later proved to have been
secretively arranged so to block from view the reality;
pro-Chavez marchers were firing in self-defense after
having been attacked by hidden gunmen. Meanwhile, their
president had been violently kidnapped. RCTV's action
were part of a blatant and well-coordinated attempt by
the major media to assist the coup leaders by blinding
the public to what was actually happening.

Luckily, there is an extensive system of alternative
media in Latin America which spread the message of the
truth, and the Venezuelan people stormed Caracas and
put their president back in power, along with the
majority of the National Guard which did not support
the senior officers who had planned the coup. The
reporting was in fact much worse than Fox News
reporting that Florida went to Bush in the 2000
Presidential election and covering up all the
manipulations of the voter roles.

RCTV is well-known not only for constant dishonest
anti-Chavez propaganda and a complete lack of dignified
analysis, but for massive amounts of advertising for
sex hotlines, pornographic programs back to back
between 1 and 5am, and other behavior that was
considered to be irresponsible and in violation of laws
protecting children.

There remain approximately three other major stations
which are entirely opposition-run and very similar to
RCTV in their programming. Over the years since the
coup, the Chavez administration has negotiated with
these stations behind the scenes. The stations have
agreed to curb a lot of their ridiculous anti-Chavez
propaganda and sexually explicit programming, so as not
to have their concession closed. RCTV was absolutely
uncompromising, and subsequently, it lost its

Arguments suggesting that Chavez is arbitrarily
censoring those who criticize him are weakened by the
fact that the opposition's message (that there is no
freedom of speech in Venezuela) is pounded through the
most prominent radio waves, the biggest TV stations,
and through all major press every day of the week, even
after Chavez's management of media concessions.

Many Venezuelans who support Chavez criticize Chavez
for negotiating with the TV stations which participated
in the coup (and have awful programming). Many believe
those stations should have been shut down - without

Many of my Venezuelan friends reveal that they are not
immune to the media's campaigns; they were raised to
instinctively believe much of what the news reports. So
when they read news reports about the lack of freedom
of speech in Venezuela, they express a mix of feelings
- mainly confusion and anger. They almost feel silly
trying to engage in a discussion about it. Because the
obvious reality in front of them is that in Venezuela
there is freedom of speech, especially since RCTV's
closing and the opening of media outlets such as
Telesur, which broadcast other perspectives.

RCTV has now campaigned to get the OAS, the USA and
other international bodies on their side in an effort
to paint the Chavez government as dictatorial and use
political pressure to get their concession renewed. But
the law and justice are not on RCTV's side, especially
since the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, the supreme
court of Venezuela, ruled strongly in favor of the
constitutionality of the non-renewal of the concession
last week.

It is important to note that the channel that received
the concession in RCTV's place is a concrete step
toward public television in Venezuela. "Venezuelan
Social Television" (TVES) is controlled by a foundation
independent of the government, with a government
appointee on its board of directors. Further, it will
broadcast mostly programs produced by independent
parties, and will focus on quality, educational
television. No "reality shows", just reality. The
channel is nascent, which means that in reality it
could become distinct from its original vision.
Nonetheless, in these initial stages it suggests a
brighter journalistic future for Venezuela. You can
read about it in the transcript of an interview with
the director of public policy of the ministry of
communication and information, Luisana Colomine, at

Thorough interrogation of questions of democracy in
Venezuela is extremely important, particularly in the
realm of petroleum politics. Some social movements
argue that PDVSA is teaming up with transnational
corporations from the USA to cover up the devastating
human and environmental effects of oil exploitation. It
is possible that there is simply no democracy in the
oil business anywhere in the world. Why might it be
that this is not denounced by Bush and the
international media?

The non-renewal of RCTV's concession has been one of
the more positively democratic acts of the Chavez
government since Chavez's re-election. Living in
Venezuela, seeing things from this perspective, when I
hear the accusations of violations of freedom of
speech, I am absolutely flabbergasted. I feel a
disturbing sensation of powerlessness and alienation
from the international media. These issues raise
questions as to who really controls international
communication, and whether we think it is OK for a
corporation like Disney to own the History Channel.
These questions are beyond the scope of this article,
but are extremely important and directly related to
this issue.

James Suggett collaborates with both government and
civil society organizations in Merida, Venezuela,
including the Mision Sucre, Mision Vuelvan Caras, the
Autonomous Culture Institute, feminist organizations
such as the Luna Nueva Collective, and an array of
cooperativist development initiatives.

Venezuela: TV Shutdown Harms Free Expression


(Washington, DC, May 22, 2007)-The Venezuelan
government's politically motivated decision not to
renew a television broadcasting license is a serious
setback for freedom of expression in Venezuela, Human
Rights Watch said today. The decision will shut down
Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the country's oldest
private channel, when its license expires on May 27,
2007. President Hugo Chávez has repeatedly threatened
to cancel RCTV's license ever since he accused it of
supporting an April 2002 coup attempt. On December 28,
2006, he announced during a military ceremony that the
order not to renew the channel's 20-year license had
already been drafted.

'President Hugo Chávez is misusing the state's
regulatory authority to punish a media outlet for its
criticism of the government,' said José Miguel Vivanco,
Americas director at Human Rights Watch. 'The move to
shut down RCTV is a serious blow to freedom of
expression in Venezuela.'

Of the three commercial stations accessible in all
parts of Venezuela, only RCTV has remained strongly
critical of the government. The other two-Venevision
and Televen-were themselves accused of supporting the
attempted coup and subsequent anti-government protests.
But both have since removed virtually all content
critical of the government from their programming.

Venevision's license is also due for renewal on May 27,
but the government has remained silent about the
channel's future, in contrast to its repeated public
attacks on RCTV.

Officials defend the decision by pointing out that the
government is merely exercising its right not to renew
RCTV's broadcasting license when it expires. However,
no procedure was established to enable RCTV to present
evidence and arguments in its favor; the criteria on
which the decision was based were not established
clearly beforehand, nor was there any application or
selection process allowing RCTV to submit an
application for continuation of its concession.

In March 2007 the government published details of its
case-a 360-page 'White Book on RCTV'-which includes
pages of allegations against the station, some of them
based on investigations by the government broadcasting
authority CONATEL. The report was issued months after
Chávez made his announcement and does not address the
station's replies to CONATEL's investigation.

The White Book accuses RCTV of 'inciting rebellion,'
showing 'lack of respect for authorities and
institutions,' breaking the laws protecting minors,
engaging in monopolistic practices, and failing to pay
taxes. However, it does not cite a single final
judicial or administrative ruling establishing that the
channel had in fact committed any of these alleged
offenses during its 20-year contract. No one from the
channel has been convicted for their alleged complicity
in the attempted coup.

Government officials have announced that RCTV will be
replaced by a public service channel open to community
groups and independent producers and without editorial
control by the state or government programming.

The government has not made a clear case why RCTV must
be taken off the air to set up the new channel. The
government has frequencies at its disposal on both VHF
and UHF wavebands in many parts of Venezuela. It has
already used UHF frequencies to successfully install a
nationwide education and cultural channel, Vive TV.

'The government's proposal to democratize the airwaves
sounds great in theory, but shutting down broadcasters
for their political views is not the way to do it,'
said Vivanco.

Related Material

More Information on Human Rights in Venezuela Country

Venezuela: Curbs on Free Expression Tightened Press
Release, March 24, 2005

Venezuela: Media Law Undercuts Freedom of Expression
Press Release, November 30, 2004

Venezuela's Supreme Court Upholds Prior Censorship and
"Insult Laws" Press Release, July 18, 2003

Venezuela: Limit State Control of Media Letter, July 1,

Caught In The Crossfire: Freedom of Expression in
Venezuela Report, May 21, 2003


(c) Copyright 2003, Human Rights Watch 350 Fifth
Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA


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nikkitembo said...

"The accusations of "restrictions on the freedom of
speech", which appear frequently in the international
media, are not only inaccurate, but also simply

Media has a tendency to sensationalize things too much. People should be more careful with the information they put out.