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Venezuela: Chávez changes tack on media

An RCTV sympathiser with painted face demonstrates against Chávez's decision not to renew the TV station's licence. Photo credit: Reuters
An RCTV sympathiser demonstrates against Chávez's decision not to renew the TV station's licence

Chávez changes tack on media


President Hugo Chávez has never been shy of creating an international furore. He caused another at the end of December when he announced that he was not going to renew the broadcasting licence of one of the country's leading television stations, Radio Caracas TV (RCTV). It was the first time Chávez had made such a move against the private media, despite their often vitriolic opposition to him and his government.

Since taking office in 1999, Chávez had chosen not to shut down the opposition media - to the surprise of critics (and the disappointment of some of his supporters). With some exceptions, freedom of expression has existed in Venezuela; there has been no overt censorship, and journalists have not been imprisoned for criticising his regime. Since 2004, Chávez has been bolstering investment in the state sector, issuing threats against the private media and passing laws viewed as circumscribing their area of action. His attitude to the press has been seen by his critics as an embodiment of his political DNA - one foot in democracy, the other in authoritarianism.
So why the sudden change? Chávez has clearly been emboldened by his victory in the December elections, in which he won 63% of the vote. He has announced a series of radical moves, including nationalising telecommunications, electricity and heavy oil. The move against RCTV fits the pattern of his desire to deepen his model of '21st-century socialism'.

Political vendetta

His attitude to the press has been seen by his critics as an embodiment of his political DNA - one foot in democracy, the other in authoritarianism
It is also in part, many observers say, an act of political vendetta. Announcing the move, Chávez reminded the world of the station's support for the failed April 2002 coup against him. RCTV and the three other main TV stations were clearly partisan in their coverage. Andrés Izarra, Chávez's former Information Minister, who used to work at RCTV, said that at the time of the coup the channel had broadcast 64 days of propaganda against the government.

Chávez often describes the stations as the "four horses of the apocalypse". But there are differences between them. Recently, RCTV has kept up its strident opposition to the Chávez government, whilst two of the other main stations, Venevisión and Televen, have softened their criticism.
Like the other stations, RCTV belongs to a well-resourced, family-based group (Phelps) with commercial interests in a wide variety of activities. Founded in 1953, it is Venezuela's oldest commercial TV station. One of its main owners, Marcel Granier, is known for his outspoken criticism of Chávez. He hit back at the government, saying that legally RCTV's licence does not expire until at least 2022.

Press watchdog organisations like the Inter-American Press Association and Reporters Without Borders denounced the move for limiting editorial pluralism. The general secretary of the Organisation of the American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, said it was a violation of freedom of expression. Chávez called Insulza an "idiot" and a "viceroy of the empire". Others questioned why Chávez did not take the case through the courts rather than unilaterally deciding not to renew the licence.

Extending the state sector

The government has said it wants a state-funded public service station to replace RCTV. The decision forms part of Chávez's plan to expand the state media sector, which historically has enjoyed few viewers. A new pan-Latin American TV news channel, Telesur, which is largely financed by Chávez and designed to rival CNN, was launched in October 2005. Now there will be a new radio network of government or state stations called Radiosur, which should start broadcasting some time in 2007.

Most worryingly for those concerned about the future of media pluralism in Venezuela, Andrés Izarra confirmed what he called a "new strategic plan" for the media. This included the non-renewal of RCTV's licence and the purchase of a Venezuelan television frequency for Telesur. Izarra said the aim was to
"construct a communications and information hegemony that will allow an ideological and cultural battle to promote socialism". It prompted one leading critic to describe Chávez as a "Caribbean Gramsci".

James Painter is Executive Editor for the Americas and Europe Region, BBC World Service. As a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, he is currently studying the boom in international news channels

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