The Miami Herald
May 27, 2007
Despite demonstrations and overwhelming popularity among citizens, an
opposition TV station is scheduled to be shut down by the Venezuelan
Venezuela's most popular television station will go off the air at midnight tonight, shut down by leftist President Hugo Chávez in what critics call an unprecedented move to silence dissident voices.
Chávez has charged that the ''fascist'' channel is guilty of ''coup-plotting'' and other attempts to destabilize his government. Officials argue the government is merely exercising its right not to renew a 20-year license it says expires this weekend.
To protest the shutdown of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets Saturday chanting ''Freedom, Freedom.'' Police watched as protesters paraded along a Caracas avenue, some holding signs reading ''No to silence,'' while others taped their mouths.
In a counter-demonstration in a downtown plaza, hundreds of red-clad Chávez supporters gathered in front of a large television screen, where alleged violations by RCTV were replayed as the words, ''Tell the truth,'' rolled across the screen.
RCTV, which has been broadcasting since 1953 and reaches most Venezuelan homes, is famous for its soap operas and entertainment programs, including the world's longest-running comedy show, the halfcentury-old Radio Rochela.
NEWS SHOWS BLASTED
But its hard-hitting breakfast talk-show, The Interview, and an evening newscast that often highlights topics such as violent crime that the government would rather play down, have aroused the ire of the authorities. They say the station's owners, the 1BC group, and its director Marcel Granier, whom they refer to as ''oligarchs,'' have manipulated the news in their own interests in a bid to bring down the 8-year-old Chávez government.
''They have tried to create a dictatorship in which the owner of the médium is also the owner of the message,'' said Cilia Flores, president of the Venezuelan legislature.
Flores was addressing an open-air session of parliament Thursday at which a few dozen public employees looked on -- and sometimes clapped -- as legislators and Information Minister Willian Lara defended the closure. Polls suggest roughly eight out of 10 Venezuelans disagree with the measure.
On the street, opinions vary. ''When the coup attempt happened,'' said Paulina Corredor, 51, a clerk, ``they didn't tell us what was going on in our country.''
When Chávez was briefly ousted in 2002, RCTV and other private TV stations blacked out news of demonstrations that helped restore him to power in an apparent attempt to preserve the de facto regime of business leader Pedro Carmona.
But Malvy Marcano, 50, a public employee, said that if RCTV was guilty of backing the coup, ``so were all the others. So why are they taking it out on just one of them? I think it's political; it's an attack on freedom of expression.''
Of the four main TV channels that carry news -- which Chávez used to refer to as the ''four horsemen of the Apocalypse'' -- two have now effectively ditched criticism of the government. The other -- 24-hour news channel Globovisión -- is also in the government's sights, but its concession has several years to run.
Human rights organizations say the RCTV shutdown is arbitrary and unjust.
In a statement, Carlos Lauría of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said a three-month investigation by the CPJ had determined that the government was guilty of, ``a predetermined and politically motivated effort to silence critical coverage.''
The European Parliament and the U.S. Senate have criticized the move as a blow to freedom of expression.
The government says it will immediately replace RCTV's signal with what it calls a ''public service channel'' called TEVES. But despite its claims that the new channel will be open to all points of view, the record of other channels already under government control is not encouraging.
''We fear that [TEVES] will effectively operate as a government organ,'' said Carlos Lauría. ''Five of the seven members of the board of directors will be appointed by the executive'' branch of the Venezuelan government.
Congressman José Albornoz of the pro-government party Motherland for All rejected the idea.
''It's not going to be a TV station for the state, for Chávez,'' Albornoz told The Miami Herald. ``That's very important. It's going to be a station that helps people understand a bit better what's happening in Venezuela.''
On Wednesday, the Venezuelan supreme court rejected RCTV's plea for an injunction to prevent the shut-down. But it agreed to hear the case against the measure at a later stage.