U.S. Rep. TOM LANTOS
May 25, 2007
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is nearing the end of his campaign to stifle independent media -- not due to a change of heart, but because through the years he has been singularly successful at cutting off dissenting voices in Venezuela. If he succeeds in his latest ploy, another will fall silent in the coming days.
Chávez intends to pull the plug on the country's oldest and most popular station, Radio Caracas TV (RCTV), a source of radio programming for 76 years and television for 53. Chávez has refused to let the station renew its license, which expires on Sunday.
The roster of critics of this impending move grows daily. So far, we have heard from the Secretary General of the OAS, the Inter-American Press Association, the National Association of Newspapers of Brazil, Reporters without Borders, The Committee to Protect Journalists and no less than the Congress of Chile.
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has objected as well, and it has been criticizing the gradual collapse of free expression in Venezuela since 1998.
None of this has deterred Chávez, who plans to whip up a crowd and lead a march to RCTV's headquarters formally to shut it down.
The facts surrounding the looming closure point to a political vendetta by Chávez against a band of broadcasters who have consistently criticized him. So Chávez has decided to close what he calls a ''fascist channel,'' adding ominously in a recent speech that, ``We won't tolerate here any media outlet that is coup-mongering, against the people, against the nation, against national independence, against national dignity.''
No doubt Chávez would want every program on the air to be like the hours-long broadcast Hello President, which he hosts. And for speaking out, I'll probably earn a rant on the next show. But the stakes are too high to keep silent.
If Chávez succeeds, the pain will be felt most immediately by RCTV's owners and the 3,000 employees who will be put out of work at the end of the month. But the long-term damage is likely to be much greater.
In the Americas, assaults on free expression are always indicators of creeping authoritarian behavior, though they seem to get more subtle with time.
In the 1970s in Nicaragua the owner of La Prensa was gunned down; in the '90s in Peru, Fujimori shut down Channel 2 claiming that its owner wasn't really Peruvian -- a surprise to him and his family. The move in Venezuela now is similarly malicious.
Admittedly, Chávez replaced a discredited political class in Venezuela that had long outlived any pretense that it was serving the vast majority of Venezuelans. But this is another in a long line of his actions that are dismembering that country's democratic tradition and replacing it with something that appears more Orwellian every day. Last week, Chávez described his plan to replace RCTV with a ''public service'' channel: ``One micro-second after what will occur on May 27 we must have on the air programming that is free, recreational, healthful, educational, moral, where our own values and culture are disseminated.''
This should send chills down the spine of the Americas, from Canada to the southern tip of Argentina.
The nations of the Western Hemisphere must raise their voices as one against this affront. This region has emerged with head held high from a difficult recent history, building a democratic tradition based on the rule of law and a set of values we all share. That victory is being undermined before our eyes.
I urge regional leaders such as Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and others to galvanize a single voice to echo the sentiments already issued by Chile's Senate, which expressed its ''strong rejection'' of the plan to squash RCTV. Keeping quiet on this matter is a vote against independent thought in Venezuela and throughout the region. It is a vote against the history of the Americas.
The time for silence is over.
U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., is the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.