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LATIN AMERICA
RCTV: The world reacts
Inter Press Service, Latinamerica Press
6/13/2007
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Was Chávez making a sovereign decision or attacking freedom of expression?

Amid uproar from press freedom groups, Andrés Izarra, head of the regional Venezuela-based television network Telesur, is careful to say that one opposition channel in the country was not closed down by the government at all.

Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, “was not closed down; what happened was its concession was not renewed,” said the former communications minister of Venezuela.

RCTV is not the only media outlet that has stopped operating in Venezuela as the result of a government measure. During the April 2002 coup in which President Hugo Chávez was removed from power for two days, the public station Canal 8 was shut down.

And in 2003, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, an outspoken Chávez opponent, closed down the community station Catia TV for several days.

According to a presidential decree from 1987, television and radio station licenses in Venezuela expired on May 27. It allowed these stations to operate for 20 years, and established their right to renew the licenses if they have complied with current legal norms.

The Social Responsibility for Media law, which took effect in January 2005, regulated when programming containing violent or sexual content could be aired and also aimed to ensure spaces for independent media while trying to curb defamation.

The exception
The National Telecommunications Commission renewed four of the five stations whose licenses expired on May 27: Venezolana de Televisión, Venevisión, Televisora Andina de Mérida, and Amavisión. RCTV was the only station whose license was not renewed, although it can continue to transmit its program on cable or satellite television.

Many Venezuelans say it has to do with nothing more than the fact that RCTV is opposed to Chávez. Others say that the station was pro-coup for having supported an “attack against democracy” on April 2002.

The Venezuelan government said that the station committed “serious lacks of social responsibility before Venezuelan society,” according to a March publication by the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information.

In 2000, RCTV was cited for airing scenes of “physical and psychological violence … and explicit sex” during prime time television hours. The station was also cited by other governments for false and biased journalistic reports, among other issues.

Venezuelan authorities say the decision not to renew RCTV’s license is part of a government strategy to democratize the media and the need to “attend to the constitutional requirement to provide public service television [programming] that favors the citizenry’s formation.”

The minister of Popular Power for Telecommunications and Information, Jesse Chacón, said that though the new station that replaces RCTV, Televisora Venezolana Social, known as Teves, is state-run, the programming’s producers will be independent and the government will not interfere in their editorial line.

“Teves will be a milestone, not only in Venezuela, but in Latin America,” said Chacón.

Some viewed the government’s decision not to renew RCTV’s license as a positive step toward getting rid of the news “monopoly” that was in private hands.

In January, CONATEL said that 78 percent of the VHF television stations are privately-owned.

In early June, CONATEL began to prepare 71 community media — seven television stations and 64 radio stations throughout the country. “These media are run by the communities, through community foundations, so that men and women from our pueblo can have more and more access to freely express their points of view, their ideas, messages that reflect their identities,” said CONATEL.

In 1999, Chávez’s government formalized numerous radio stations that had been transmitting illegally and guaranteed free access to community media as a constitutional right.

International reactions to Chávez’s decision varied. The leaders closest allies in the region — Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua — called it a “sovereign decision,” while press freedom groups such as Reporters without Borders, the Peruvian Press and Society Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Inter-American Press Association found it to be a blatant attack on freedom of expression. “The distribution of concessions on the dial should be based on technical reasons, not political ones,” said the Press and Society Institute.

A “political move”
Reporters without Borders said that “RCTV’s closure is not, as [Chávez] would have people believe, a mere administrative measure. It is a political move designed to reinforce his hegemony over the news media.”

The organization called “for international condemnation of President Hugo Chávez’s decision not to renew the license of Venezuela’s oldest TV station.”

But the debate has also come up in other countries in the region.
In Honduras, meanwhile, President Manuel Zelaya ordered all television and radio stations to broadcast 10 daily one-hour programs during prime time, starting May 28, to counteract what he called “misinformation” on his administration provided by the press.

Honduran law stipulates that nationally broadcast messages can only be used to call elections or in case of natural disasters or emergencies.
Zelaya’s decision was reminiscent of the frequent use of national broadcasts in the 1970s, when the military held power, and has drawn fire from journalists’ associations, the media, and even the president of parliament, Roberto Micheletti.

An unlikely closure
In Colombia, in October 2004, the Álvaro Uribe administration closed Inravisión, its Radio and Television Institute, which broadcast on three stations. Its programming included educational and cultural content, a daily interview program on social movements, and documentaries that were often awkward for the government.

During an October 2006 parliamentary debate led by Sen. Gustavo Petro, leader of the main opposition party, the left-wing Democratic Pole, on the ties between the far-right paramilitary militias and politicians in the northern provinces of Sucre and Cordoba, the Institutional Channel, which is now run by Radio Television de Colombia and frequently broadcasts parliamentary hearings and debates, inexplicably went off the air in both provinces.

“Not only the public TV station, but also cable stations briefly stopped broadcasting the Institutional Channel in some parts of Bogota and in big cities like Cucuta in the northeast, without any explanation. We know that from reports from viewers themselves, during the debate or the day after,” said Hernán Onatra, the press officer of Sen. Petro.

But “if we look at the diversity of the media, there is much more freedom of expression in Venezuela than in Chile, for example,” said Felipe Portales, who runs the Freedom of Expression Program at the public University of Chile’s Institute of Communication and Image.

Although no arbitrary measures against the media have been reported in Chile in recent years, freedom is restricted by the concentration of ownership in a few hands, according to Portales and the director of the Fucatel Media Observatory, Manuela Gumucio.

“With the exception of Cuba, Chile is the country that has the least freedom of expression in Latin America, in terms of media plurality,” with “a situation that is worse than what we experienced before the end of the dictatorship” of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, said Portales.

The coverage of the RCTV case is one illustration of that, he said. “The Chilean media have only shown one version, the anti-Chávez side. We don’t have the necessary elements to form an opinion on it,” he argued.


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