May 31, 2007
In silencing an irritating broadcaster, Hugo Chávez has taken a big step away from democracy
WHEN a television station closes down, it is not so unusual for its soap stars and journalists to bid tearful on-screen farewells. The remarkable thing about the closure of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) was that it was also marked by protest demonstrations by tens of thousands of Venezuelans. That was not just because RCTV is Venezuela's oldest television company and aired many of its favourite shows. It was also because the protesters judged, rightly, that in pulling the plug on RCTV Hugo Chávez's leftist government has taken another big step away from democracy.
After winning 63% of the vote and another six-year term in a presidential election last December, Mr Chávez announced that RCTV's broadcasting licence would not be renewed when it expired on May 27th. The government's reasons are that the channel acted as an opposition mouthpiece, and that it backed a short-lived coup against Mr Chávez in April 2002. His apologists around the world make the claim that, despite RCTV's closure, Venezuela's media remain free and plural.
It is true that RCTV's news coverage was partisan—as is that of the state-owned channels. It is also true—and reprehensible—that it supported the 2002 coup. But these are dubious grounds for closing it, and are not Mr Chávez's real reason for doing so. After all, when it comes to coups, Mr Chávez has form: as an army officer he led one against a democratic government in 1992. This month he renewed the licence of Venevisión, another private channel whose stance was similar to that of RCTV in 2002 but which now refrains from criticising the government. And if the issue was really that RCTV had broken the terms of its licence, under Venezuelan law that is a matter for the regulator and the courts, not the president. Coincidentally, Mr Chávez has just merged the supposedly independent regulator with the Communications Ministry.
By closing RCTV Mr Chávez has silenced the most powerful source of media opposition to his “21st century socialism”. Only one other television station, a mainly-cable channel that can be seen by only 20% of the population, is critical of the government—and it, too, this week faced threats from Mr Chávez (see article). The remaining channels all belong to the government or to sympathetic businessmen. Some newspapers are more independent, but they increasingly now censor themselves in the face of harassment.
The difference between a mandate and a democracy
Mr Chávez remains personally popular, thanks to the massive increase in Venezuela's oil revenues since he came to office, money that he has showered on social programmes of varying effectiveness. But polls show that most Venezuelans opposed the closure of RCTV, and are unhappy at the government's failure to tackle crime and food shortages.
The president's electoral mandate is not a blank cheque. Democracy is about much more than just elections—as the left itself has often argued. It is also about political freedoms, the rule of law and checks on executive power. Precious little of this still exists in Venezuela. With television and the press now pretty much under the government's thumb, how will anyone be able to call the next election free and fair?
In the bad old days in Latin America, military dictators simply sent troops to close down obstreperous broadcasters and newspapers. Mr Chávez is more subtle. He has preserved the forms of democracy while gradually, but inexorably, eviscerating it. In a continent that not long ago prided itself on its democratisation, that ought to outrage Venezuela's neighbours. It is high time they plucked up the courage to tell Mr Chávez that he is going in the wrong direction.