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Free Speech in Venezuela


The government of Venezuela decided not to renew a broadcast license for RCTV, one of the oldest and largest opposition-controlled TV stations in the country, when its 20-year term expired on May 27. The US media, in keeping with its reporting on Venezuela for the last 8 years, has seized upon this opportunity to portray this as an assault on “freedom of the press.”

It’s not clear why a TV station that would never get a broadcast license in the United States or any other democratic country should receive one in Venezuela. But this is the one question that doesn’t seem to come up in any of the news reports or editorials here.

RCTV actively participated in the U.S.-backed coup that briefly overthrew Venezuela’s democratically elected President Hugo Chavez in 2002. The station promoted the coup government, reported only the pro-coup version of events. It censored and suppressed the news as the coup fell apart.

Even ignoring RCTV’s role in the coup, its broadcast license would have been revoked years ago in the U.S., Europe, or any country that regulates the public airwaves. During the oil strike of 2002-2003, the station repeatedly called on people to join in and help topple the government. The station has also fabricated accusations of murder by the government, using graphic and violent images to promote its hate-filled views.

The whole idea that freedom of expression is under attack in Venezuela is a joke to anyone who has been there in the last eight years. Most of the media in Venezuela is still controlled by people who are vehemently (sometimes violently) opposed to the government. This will be true even after RCTV switches from broadcast to cable and satellite media. All over the broadcast media you can hear denunciations of the president and the government of the kind that you would not hear in the United States on a major national broadcast network. Imagine Rush Limbaugh during the Clinton impeachment, times fifty, but with much less regard for factual accuracy.

Pick up a newspaper — El Universal and El Nacional are two of the biggest — and the vast majority of the headlines are trying to make the government look bad. Turn on the radio and most of what you will hear is also anti-government. Television now has two state-run channels, but these only counterbalance the rest of the programming that is opposition-controlled. Venezuela has a more oppositional media than we have in the United States.

In fact, if the government carries through on its promise to turn RCTV’s broadcast frequency over to the public, for a diverse array of programming, then this move will actually increase freedom of expression in Venezuela – rather than suppressing it, as the media and some opportunistic, ill-informed politicians here have maintained.

Sadly, some human rights officials here have also, without knowing much of the details, jumped on the media and political bandwagon. In a press release this week, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said that “The move to shut down RCTV is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Venezuela.” (Of course RCTV will not be “shut down,” since it can continue to distribute its programs through cable and satellite media). But in an interview the same week Vivanco gave a different view, criticizing “those who claim that the fact that the Chavez government is not renewing the license for RCTV, per se implies a violation of freedom of expression. That is nonsense. . . you are not entitled, as a private company, to get your contract renewed with the government forever.” So why is a station that has repeatedly violated the most basic rules of any broadcast license entitled to another 20-year state-sanctioned franchise?

It is not surprising that a monopolized media here would defend the “right” of right-wing media moguls to control the airwaves in Venezuela. Still it would be nice if we could get both sides of the story here – like Venezuelans do from their major media, which is right now saturated with broadcasts and articles against (as well as for) the government’s decision. Then Americans could make up their own minds about whether this is really a “free speech” issue. Is that really too much to ask from our own “free press?”

Greg Grandin teaches Latin American history at New York University and is the author of a number of books, including the just published Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.

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