May 31, 2007
A cacophony of clanging pots and pans has been ringing through the balmy night air in middle-class neighbourhoods of Caracas since the weekend, as residents lean out of windows to protest against the end of their favourite television channel.
During the day, student groups have marched through the streets of the capital in defence of freedom of expression, in the most prolonged period of unrest in Venezuela since demonstrations in March 2004 demanding a recall referendum.
The protests were triggered by President Hugo Chávez’s refusal to renew the licence of RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest and most popular television channel, leading to occasional clashes between protesters throwing bottles and stones and police firing rubber bullets and tear gas. So far more than 180 protesters have been arrested and a former presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales, has called for their release, accusing the government of attempting to establish a “media hegemony”.
He also attacked Mr Chávez’s threats this week against Globovision, the only remaining television channel that is strongly critical of the government after RCTV’s licence expired on Sunday.
“I recommend that [Globovision] takes a tranquilliser, that they slow down, because if not, I’m going to slow them down,” said Mr Chávez, describing the 24-hour news channel as “enemies of the homeland” in a speech that all channels were obliged to broadcast.
“A new destabilisation plan is under way,” he said, urging supporters to be “on guard”. Willian Lara, the communications minister, asked prosecutors to open a case against Globovision for inciting Mr Chávez’s assassination by broadcasting images of the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II in 1981, accompanied by the chorus of a popular salsa song, This Does Not Stop Here. It was part of a retrospective of news events covered by RCTV during its 53 years on air.
“We can’t take something so absurd seriously,” said Maria Fernanda Flores, the vice-president of Globo–vision.
“We are going to continue doing what we have done for our 13 years on the air as independent journalists. If they want us to engage in self-censorship, let them shut us down. We are not doing anything illegal,” she said.
Diverse organisations have criticised Mr Chávez’s treatment of the media, including the European Union, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, various members of the US Congress, the Chilean Senate, Reporters without Borders and Human Rights Watch.
But Alex Main, a government adviser, said: “People should really be asking themselves whether any government in the world would agree to renew the licence of a television network that has been as intensely active in various campaigns to topple the country’s constitutional government through anti-democratic means.”
Mr Chávez accuses RCTV of involvement in a 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power.
Independent organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International agree that RCTV’s reporting of coup was biased.
Further, the government points out that although RCTV is no longer able broadcast on a VHF frequency – and the Supreme Court has ruled that Teves, the “public service” channel replacing RCTV, may take over its transmitters, antennae and other equipment – it is free to broadcast on cable and satellite.