Freedom of expression in Venezuela today 'has no precedent'

The Venezuelan government's decision not to renew the expired free-to-air broadcasting licence of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), while still allowing it to broadcast online or via cable, has created a sharp debate in Venezuela about democracy and freedom of speech.

RCTV actively promoted the short-lived military coup against Venezuela's elected government in April 2002, including suppressing all footage of the popular uprising that subsequently defeated the coup. Yet RCTV was allowed to continue broadcasting for more than five years until its licence expired on May 28. In refusing to renew the licence, the government cited more than 600 violations of Venezuelan broadcasting law committed by the station.

In the weeks before and after May 28, there have been a series of sometimes violent opposition street demonstrations, led by students from the prestigious private Catholic University of Andres Bello (UCAB) and other private institutions as well as the public Venezuelan Central University (UCV). The opposition mass media claims these demonstrations represent "the people", and has portrayed the non-renewal of RCTV's licence as a repressive measure against opposition voices by an increasingly "authoritarian" President Hugo Chavez.

On May 28 and June 2 there were much larger demonstrations in support of the government, mobilising workers, students, small traders and the urban poor. There has also been a series of smaller pro-government demonstrations around the country and in Caracas. People converged on Caracas from all over Venezuela for the June 2 mobilisation, to condemn the violence of the opposition protests and support the social program of the Venezuelan revolution.

On June 5, Green Left Weekly spoke to Servando Garcia Ponce, the sub-director of the Venezuelan daily Diaro Vea, in the newspaper's Caracas offices.

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@question = Do you think the enormous demonstration on the weekend in support of the government's decision on RCTV will demoralise and demobilise the opposition campaign and opposition student mobilisations?

Firstly, the [June 2] popular manifestation was to support the politics of President Chavez, not only for the liberty of expression or just about RCTV, but also to support his politics in general, of confronting imperialism, of steering Venezuela towards true sovereignty, of owning its own resources.

So what is producing the [anti-government] demonstrations of the students and youth? Why are they struggling, [when] there is a full and extensive liberty of expression? In any newspaper, pamphlet or any form, you can say whatever you like … No journalist can say that their media was closed by the government or censored. No-one can say that there exists a censor that limits what is written [and] communicated or limits information. The freedom of expression that exists today has no precedent.

Students [who mobilised against the government] were manipulated by the opposition mass media. In reality they were serving the interests of the opposition. The student manifestations have no real basis, no serious argument. Can it convert into a grand manifestation of the opposition? No. Now the country is calm and completely peaceful. They are a temporary phenomenon with little impact. They are being utilised in an effort to create the conditions for a coup, but this is failing.

@question = The government has responded by emphasising the links between the latest opposition campaign and the ongoing efforts by the US to try to destabilise Venezuela.

Of course, the US is continuing to utilise this moment to destabilise the Venezuelan situation, because the US objective in the first place is domination and control and thereby to gain control of Venezuelan petroleum. They also demand that the example of Chavez does not spread to the rest of Latin America, like they oppose the example of Cuba. Chavez is an example of sovereignty, and in this country we have sovereignty over our basic resources, like petroleum, iron, steel, our industry, our structures, defence — this is called "endogenous" development. So the US continues in its efforts against Venezuela because the example of Chavez has resonance.

The technique of Chavez, his argumentation, has made him a leader of the Latin American people … Here we have an internationalist potential, beginning for example in an economic union, [such as the] economic agreements of Mercosur [the Common Market of the South] and ALBA [the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas]. In Ecuador the electoral process — a peaceful process — has brought to power a president in agreement with Chavez.

[Venezuela, together with the governments of] Nicaragua, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil now form a correlation of forces in Latin America that is to the left, that now struggles against imperialism, because the governments are based on the left in all those places. Already the alternative or the options are not between identical parties as was the case in the past. Now the options are left and right.

[Previously], elections every five years would change the [ruling] party with another that was the same — like in Colombia with the Liberals and the Conservatives, or Mexico with [the Institutional Revolutionary Party] PRI and [the National Action Party] PAN, likewise in Argentina. The situation has changed and now it is left or right. In Venezuela it is right or left — the socialist left — and also we have the appearance of the new party [the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)].

@question = Can you talk about any plans to democratise the media?
@answer = Principally, this concerns the frequency that was occupied by RCTV, because Radio Caracas Television has not been shut down, it is still functioning. However its free-to-air frequency has been handed over to the popular Venezuelan Social Television (TVes). There are also various community television stations like Vive. There is also [the New Television Station of the South] Telesur. These are stations of the people. This is the demand of the people and a freedom of expression of the whole people, not one group of business people.

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