The Miami Herald
June 6, 2007
Venezuelan journalists from the shuttered RCTV have taken center stage at the OAS by raising media-freedom issues.
PANAMA CITY, Panama - The media outlet with the second-largest number of accredited journalists at a gathering of the Organization of American States in Panama is a Venezuelan TV station that isn't even broadcasting anymore.
Leftist President Hugo Chávez stripped RCTV of its broadcast license May 27, alleging the station, long critical of his government, supported a 2002 coup against him and violated government regulations.
But that did not stop the station from dispatching six staffers to the OAS' annual General Assembly meeting in Panama City, Panama. Only Telesur, the Chávez-controlled regional news network, has more accredited journalists, with 10.
A few months ago, David Pérez Hansen, Luisiana Ríos, Moirah Sánchez, Wildejohn Azuaje, Milos Alcalay Mircovich and Maikel Rísquez were working for Venezuela's top-ranked provider of entertainment and news.
Now they seem more like activists in the conflict between Chávez and the right to free speech. They file stories on YouTube.com, wear black protest T-shirts, give dozens of news conferences and flash V-signs at rallies for freedom of expression.
''We will go tell our story to the celestial courts if we have to,'' said Pérez Hansen, adding that he is considering returning a prestigious journalism award he received from Chávez in 2000.
The RCTV journalists already feel they have won a victory of sorts as media-freedom issues have overshadowed the OAS gathering's theme, energy cooperation.
Panamanian media organized a protest outside the assembly, chanting ''OAS, wake up, Venezuela is a dictatorship.'' Local newspapers ran advertisements in support of RCTV and OAS officials were pestered with free speech-related questions. In Venezuela, university students have been staging large and repeated street protests against the shutdown.
OAS head José Miguel Insulza became testy at one news conference, interrupting one long-winded question by Ríos and later asking if ''there are any questions about anything other'' than Venezuela.
Pérez Hansen, 35, and Ríos, 31, the group's public faces, say Chávez is determined to silence his critics.
''We are the media that did not bow its head to Chávez,'' says Ríos, who anchored an international news segment. ``The president can't stand any criticism.''
But their worries also are more personal. For how long will they be paid? What about their families?
Their world began to fall apart Dec. 28, when Chávez announced he would not renew the RCTV license.
RCTV's 3,000 employees ''felt their lives were taken away from them,'' said Pérez Hansen, who has worked at RCTV for 15 years. Azuaje, a 42-year-old cameraman, is a 23-year RCTV veteran. Rísquez, his 28-year-old assistant, has worked for six years. The 31-year-old Ríos is a 10-year vetera
''When we say we are a family, it's not just some story,'' Ríos said.
They said RCTV management has promised to continue to pay their salaries and generous benefits. But Ríos says RCTV employees are now being denied personal bank loans because of their uncertain future.
Pérez Hansen admits that during the 2002 coup against Chávez there was an ''informative silence'' -- it did not cover pro-Chávez street marches demanding his return -- but the group insists that's only part of the story.
Pérez Hansen and Ríos say they received calls from sources in the security services warning they would be attacked if they tried to cover the pro-Chávez marches. Ríos said she was so frightened she spent the night at a friend's house.
And Pérez Hansen recalls tough editorial decisions. RCTV decided not to air reports of supermarkets being plundered for fear of inciting more violence, he said.
For the moment, the group is enjoying the support of their peers. Ríos says major Latin American TV operations like Argentina's Telefe and Mexico's Televisa have inquired about buying some of their programming.
But its members are aware that, like any news story, the issue could fade from public view, and RCTV's employees will have to face the hard economic reality of a station without a broadcast license.
''If that happens,'' says Moirah Sánchez, an RCTV lawyer who accompanied the journalists to Panama, ``then we are finished.''