Venezuela: The case of RCTV and freedom of speech

May 27 will be end of the 20-year concession granted by the Venezuelan government to the RCTV corporation — owned by multi-millionaire Marcel Granier — to use the state-owned Channel 2 broadcasting signal. The Venezuelan government has announced that the channel will become a public station, similar to a number of stations in Europe, based on programs made by independent producers

The decision not to renew RCTV's concession has become the focal point of the latest campaign against the government of President Hugo Chavez by the US-backed, right-wing opposition, which claims that it amounts to an attack on freedom of speech. These claims have been echoed in the corporate media around the world. A mass demonstration by opposition-supporters on May 19 was widely reported, although the counter-demonstration the following day by supporters of the government's decision was not.

Based on the claim that the non-renewal of the concession is due to the pro-opposition stance of RCTV and is an attempt to silence critical voices, a number groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch have criticised the government's decision. Motions criticising the decision have been passed by the US Senate, the European Union and the Chilean Senate.

However, the government has refuted the allegation that RCTV is being "closed", as the station can continue broadcasting via satellite, or that the non-renewal amounts to an attack on freedom of speech. It has pointed out that the decision, carried out in accordance with Venezuelan law, to not renew the concession isn't the result of RCTV being critical of the government, but a result of more than 600 violations of Venezuelan broadcasting law committed by the station, including the non-payment of fines. Not least of these violations was the role of RCTV in the US-backed military coup in April 2002 that briefly overthrew Chavez's government.

Private TV stations, including RCTV, deliberately manipulated footage to make it appear that government forces had attacked peaceful protesters, and, after giving free advertisements and blanket coverage to opposition protesters before the coup, refused to cover the pro-Chavez uprising that restored the constitutional government. Instead, they screened cartoons and old movies. During their brief time in power, the coup plotters publicly thanked the private stations, including RCTV, for their role. Despite this, no station has been taken off air for its role in the coup. A May 18 statement by the communications ministry reported that, according to the government's research, there have been more than 600 cases of non-renewal of TV broadcast licences around the world, but it is only the Venezuelan government that has been singled out and condemned for allegedly violating free speech.

Green Left Weekly spoke to Federico Fuentes, who recently returned from Venezuela after coordinating the May Day solidarity brigade of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network, about the RCTV case.

"It is almost amusing to see this international campaign against this decision by the Chavez government", Fuentes said. "None of these organisations that have been outspoken in relation to the RCTV case have pointed out that at exactly the same time the Peruvian government shut down five to six TV stations. That is, not simply withdrawing their concessions, but actually shutting them down, which is what Chavez has falsely been accused of doing to RCTV.

Fuentes pointed out that in most countries the state decides who has broadcast rights and who doesn't. "RCTV have demonstrated to the public how it wants to use such a privilege — to organise a coup. Even though they could have been [charged] under Venezuelan law, they were never taken to trial for their role in the coup ... [The RCTV] concession is now running out, and the government has decided that other people should now be granted the right to use the Channel 2 signal."

Despite the facts, there is an international campaign "to cast aspersions of the Venezuelan government. Fundamentally, the capitalist class is scared it is losing its monopoly over the media and ability to control information."

Fuentes told GLW that all current RCTV workers have been offered jobs at the new station, so there is no need for layoffs as a result of the decision. The idea is for the new channel "to create a space for independent media at a national level. There continues to be a promotion of, and an explosion of, community TV. I think this will be reflected as the new station develops."

"People in Venezuela speak completely freely, both those for and against Chavez", Fuentes explained. Of the 81 TV stations in Venezuela, 79 are privately owned, as are all newspapers. "The majority of the media remains strongly anti-Chavez and present their case openly and without restriction. The fact that the opposition is allowed to freely demonstrate against the decision suggests Venezuela is not on the verge of dictatorship, as it claims, and have been claiming ever since Chavez was first elected. Those of us here in Sydney trying to organise a peaceful demonstration against George Bush during the APEC summit in September would love to have the same rights to protest enjoyed by the Venezuelan opposition!

"Democracy in Venezuela is flourishing. It is being extended, through new institutions of popular power, like the communal councils, but also through the growth of community media. Those who support the opposition are perfectly free to participate in all of this, and are being encouraged by the government to do so.

"The only 'right' under attack is the presumed 'right' of the old oligarchy to monopolise the media and political power, as they did before Chavez and the rise of the revolution. The government is unapologetic on this score: those days are over."

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