Corporate media outraged: Venezuela expands free speech

- Stuart Munckton

On May 27, the 20-year concession to broadcast over the state-owned Channel 2 airwave, which had been granted to multi-millionaire Marcel Granier’s RCTV, expired. The Chavez government made the decision, in accordance with laws established by a pre-Chavez government, not to renew RCTV’s concession, but instead to use the channel to establish a new public TV station, Venezuelan Social Television (TVes).

The new channel, which began broadcasting just after midnight on May 27, has been set up via a loan from a state-run bank. However it will quickly be required to become self-funded. The government will have no say over the content of the new station, which will purchase programs made by independent producers.

RCTV will be able to continue broadcasting via satellite or cable, and station heads have indicated they intend to do so. In case the station uses the non-renewal of its concession as an excuse to lay off workers, the Venezuelan government has guaranteed all of RCTV’s work force jobs at the newly created station.

The government has explained that its decision is a direct result of RCTV’s repeated violations of the law. RCTV has been responsible for more than 600 violations of Venezuela’s broadcasting law, including regularly broadcasting pornography, and has refused to pay fines for such infractions. It has also been accused of non-payment of taxes. The station has been strongly criticised for rarely allowing on air Venezuelans of indigenous or African heritage, even though they are the majority of Venezuela’s population.

The government has singled out RCTV’s role in helping organise the April 2002 US-backed military coup that overthrew the elected Chavez government, which was subsequently restored by a popular uprising of the poor, as the key factor behind the non-renewal. During their time in power, the coup leaders publicly thanked RCTV for its assistance.

These facts have become twisted beyond recognition in a campaign by the corporate media that is part of a drive to paint the Chavez government as moving towards a dictatorship, even though pro-Chavez forces have won 11 straight national elections and Chavez was re-elected in December with the largest number of votes in Venezuelan history.

The corporate media have ignored the fact that 79 out of 81 TV stations, 706 out of 708 radio stations and all newspapers in Venezuela are privately owned, and that the majority of the private media are virulently anti-Chavez. Since Chavez was elected in 1998, only two TV stations have been closed: the state-run Channel 8 during the coup by the coup leaders, and community TV station Catia TV in July 2002 by then-Caracas mayor and coup leader Alfredo Pena.

Freedom of speech has been extended under the Chavez government. Just after Chavez came to power, he passed a law that allowed the entire population the right to use the nation’s airwaves. This legalised a large number of previously illegal “pirate” radio stations, the type of stations that are still illegal in the US. The government has actively promoted community media, especially radio, which has blossomed in recent years. TVes aims to provide a space to the growing movement of independent media producers.

What none of the critics have been able to answer is: which other government in the world would renew the licence of a station that actively participated in a coup against the legitimate government? The tolerance of the Chavez government towards the private media involved in the coup is remarkable. The government has not attempted to shut down RCTV or jail its owners, or even cancel its licence, although it had a strong legal case to do so. Instead, it allowed the licence to run out its term, then chose to grant the concession to someone else.

The government says it is seeking to “democratise” the media, so that those who were previously excluded can have a voice. An article by George Ciccariello Maher posted on on May 29 pointed out that 80% of all messages, information and media content produced in Venezuela are controlled by either Granier or billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, who owns Venevision. Both are married to granddaughters of William H. Phelps Jr. — the founder of 1BC corporation, which runs RCTV. Leading 1BC shareholders include direct descendants of Phelps. Cisneros is also one of the richest men in Latin America, owning a range of industries in Venezuela and across the region.

In light of these facts, the only possible justification for renewing RCTV’s concession is that Granier and his oligarchic mates who own 1BC have some sort of automatic right to use it forever, regardless of how they abuse the privilege. To renew the licence would have sent the message that the likes of Granier, by virtue of their extreme wealth, can break the law with impunity, work to overthrow elected governments and refuse to pay taxes, and they will be rewarded with a renewal of their concession. And by implication, that the majority of Venezuelans, whose access to media is being increased, do not have the same right.

At the heart of the campaign over the media in Venezuela is the Bolivarian revolution being led by the Chavez government, which is redistributing the nation’s wealth and breaking the economic and political power of the oligarchy. This revolutionary process is increasingly empowering the working people and the poor through participatory democracy. The democratisation of the media is a crucial part of this campaign. In keeping with its profoundly democratic nature, the revolution has sought to break the media monopoly — not by silencing the rich minority who exercise the monopoly, but by countering it with an explosion of new media run by the previously voiceless.

All attempts to stop this peaceful and democratic revolution have failed, and the opposition is growing desperate. Having failed to mobilise significant numbers, the opposition then resorted to violence, with some among the protesters on May 26 opening fire on police without provocation, injuring 11 officers. In the days following the May 27 deadline, students from the wealthy universities, which remain strongholds of the elite, took to the streets, burning tires and garbage in order to block traffic, while attacking police with rocks. Yet the corporate media ignored students from the Bolivarian University — created by the Chavez government to provide free education to the poor excluded from the old universities — who marched off campus on May 29 according to a Bolivarian News Agency report, in a show of support for the RCTV decision. On June 2, reported that Avenida Bolivar in central Caracas was completely filled by a “red tide” of people from across the country who took part in a massive demonstration to reject opposition violence and support the govenrment’s stance.

The Venezuelan government believes that behind the RCTV campaign is a new plot to destablise the country in order to undermine the Chavez government, isolate it internationally, and lay the groundwork for its overthrow and for the reversal of the gains made by the revolution by whatever means possible.

The government is upset that a Spanish broadcast by CNN screened footage of a protest in Mexico while claiming it was a protest against the RCTV decision inside Venezuela, and that CNN recently showed an image of Chavez alongside an image of an assassinated al Qaeda leader. The government claims Globovision intended to potentially incite Chavez’s assassination when it followed an interview with Granier with the images of the failed assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II, while a song with the lyrics “Have faith, for it doesn’t end here” played over the top.

The much-vaunted “attack on freedom of expression” supposedly underway in Venezuela, in reality exists in the same places as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — inside the minds of the US State Department.

(From International News, Green Left Weekly issue #712 6 June 2007, slightly abridged.)