Venezuela took an important step towards democratizing its media on May
28 when a billion dollar media corporation lost its television broadcast
license to “those who almost never have a voice,” in President Hugo Chávez’s
In response Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) and its multi-millionaire owner,
Marcel Granier, claimed that “independent media are being closed down,”
that Chávez was a dictator intent on “restricting freedom of expression
and democratic rights.”
Reporters without Borders declared that RCTV losing its license was “a
serious attack on editorial pluralism,” while editorials in U.S. newspapers
predictably misrepresented the controversy, claiming Chávez was retaliating
against critics in the opposition media who “disagree” with the Bolívarian
The reality is rather different. Reporters without Borders doesn’t mention—perhaps
understandably, given its financing by the U.S. State Department’s National
Endowment for Democracy—that RCTV was an active participant in the violent
coup that deposed President Chávez for almost 48 hours in 2002.
On the day of the coup, RCTV abandoned all pretense of impartial reporting,
calling opposition supporters to demonstrate at the Miraflores Presidential
Palace in Caracas while the on screen message “Ni un paso atras” (“Not
one step back”) flashed.
It deliberately showed film from one angle to falsely claim that Chávez
supporters were firing on opposition demonstrators, when another camera
angle would have shown that Chávez supporters were defending themselves
from sniper attacks—no opposition demonstrators were in sight. The repeated
broadcasting of this film was then used as justification for military officers
to declare their “disobedience” to the president and these declarations
were faithfully broadcast to attempt to legitimize a military takeover.
U.S. editorials failed to mention all this and also failed to comment on
the Venezuelan media’s support for the subsequent fascist junta that took
control in Caracas and which proceeded to dismiss the entire Supreme Court
and the Congress, suspend the constitution, arrest the democratically-elected
president, and then send armed police into the streets to suppress resistance.
A junta member, Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez, thanked journalists on live
TV the day after the coup, saying that the organizers “had a weapon—the
media—let me congratulate you.” The junta chose businessperson Pedro Carmona
to be “president” and summoned media executives to Miraflores to ensure
that opposition to the coup was not reported.
RCTV’s boss, Granier, denied he ever met Carmona during the coup, despite
film footage showing his presence at Miraflores.
As Venezuelans took to the streets in the thousands to demand the return
of President Chávez, fighting the police and demonstrating at Miraflores
against the coup, RCTV, contrary to the constant coverage it awarded the
opposition demonstration, intentionally blacked out this breaking news.
As RCTV production manager at the time, Andrés Izarra, later related, Granier
ordered journalists “not to broadcast information on Chávez, his supporters,
or anyone connected to him.”
The Chávez demonstrators coming from the poor shanty towns up in the mountains
above Caracas encouraged soldiers loyal to the president to take back Miraflores
and arrest the junta. Helicopters were sent to the Caribbean island where
the president had been kept prisoner and, barely 48 hours after the right-wing
attempt to take Venezuela back to the military dictatorship of the 1950s,
the coup failed and Chávez returned to an ecstatic welcome.
However, none of the resistance to the coup, the junta’s arrest, or Chavez’s
return could be seen on television. During probably the most dramatic day
in Venezuela’s recent history, RCTV was showing Looney Tunes cartoons.
Other opposition media followed its lead. No rightist newspapers were printed
or distributed the following day, but the leftist Últimas Noticias in Caracas
told Venezuelans what had happened and the Chávista Panorama newspaper
published 4 editions in 20 hours as its journalists reported on the coup’s
No journalists or media executives were jailed or prosecuted after the
coup and once the opposition-dominated Supreme Court declared that, in
their opinion, “no coup had taken place,” Pedro Carmona and others were
The right once again went on the offensive. Granier’s RCTV abandoned any
pretence at professional journalism, concerning itself with the political
impact of its news broadcasts, rather than adhering to anything that resembled
journalistic ethics. In all, 5 private television stations, reaching 90
percent of Venezuelan viewers, and 9 of the 10 national newspapers, supported
Despite U.S. newspaper editorialists claiming that the state is restricting
criticism of President Chávez, it is clear to anyone who reads these newspapers
or watches Venezuela TV that the vast majority are implacably hostile to
the revolution and critical of President Chavez. There is no censorship,
as there is in U.S. client states such as Saudi Arabia and journalists
are not intimidated or assassinated as in México and Colombia.
President Bush’s recent claim that Venezuela has “repressive laws” that
“severely restrict the liberty of the press,” hardly stands up to scrutiny,
especially when, as Venezuelan Vice-President Jorge Rodríquez pointed out,
“The only television channel closed down for political reasons during this
Bolívarian administration was the pro-Chávez Channel 8 in 2002. It was
taken off the air on the first night of the coup by Pedro Carmona’s fascist
The disproportionate criticism has more to do with Chávez’s challenge to
the unaccountable elite that clearly limits “editorial pluralism” by using
its ownership and control of the media to present its privileged interests
as those of all Venezuelans. Accustomed to operating their lucrative commercial
television channels for decades without democratic oversight, this elite
has come to believe this privileged position is their right.
Chávez has pointed out that broadcasting licenses are not granted in perpetuity.
In fact, Venezuelan law and the Bolívarian Constitution confer certain
responsibilities, such as ensuring the public receives “true and accurate
information,” on the media corporations that are granted these concessions,
as does the respective media laws in the United States and most other countries.
RCTV’s concession to broadcast expired May 28. The government decided not
to renew them, citing, among other crimes such as not paying taxes, the
station’s failure to provide “true and accurate information” during the
2002 coup, when its executives intentionally refused to report breaking
news and critical information to the public and imposed its cartoon blackout.
“This decision is an irreversible fact,” William Lara, Venezuela’s Communications
and Information Minister, declared. “The Constitutional, legal, and regulatory
basis for the decision is solidly incontrovertible.” For the first time
in Venezuela, the privileged media elite had come up against a government
that could not be bought, bribed, or intimidated.
A new television service, Televisora Venezolana Social (Venezuelan Social
TV or TEVES), will take over, Chávez has announced. It will be run by an
independent foundation and have independent, community, and alternative
Although the new TEVES station will initially receive government financing,
which the British state financed BBC rather ironically claimed “might affect
its independence,” it will not be required to broadcast government programs,
such as Chávez’s “¡Alo, Presidente!,” and it will be able to take commercial
advertising to eventually allow it to be self financing.
Corporate media in almost all countries is often unresponsive, unaccountable,
and inaccessible, permitting virtually no popular participation in production
and programming. Venezuela’s attempt to start to democratize the broadcast
media has been met with predictable criticism from that corporate media
who continue to insist that a tiny, wealthy elite—and not a democratic
government elected with a massive popular vote—should have the right to
control what is seen and heard on the airwaves.
As for Granier and RCTV, some in the opposition believe it is no loss to
have the station lose its license. “RCTV wasn’t even good at propaganda,”
wrote one anti-Chávez columnist, citing Chávez’s return after the coup
and his landslide election win in 2006. But all is not lost for the anti-Chávez
opposition. RCTV can still broadcast on cable and satellite and should
there be news it doesn’t like, it will be free to black it out with as
many Looney Tunes cartoons as it likes.
Paul Haste is a British trade unionist studying in Colombia. He has worked
for the Transport and General Workers’ Union in London, where he ran the
Latin American Workers’ Association that unionized immigrant workers.