Venezuela and freedom of speech – 4 lies, 4 answers

Alessandro Villari, from Hands Off Venezuela in Italy, answers four of the most common lies in the media about RCTV and freedom of speech in Venezuela. 

Since the Venezuelan president announced a few months ago that the Bolivarian government would not renew the broadcast concession to the TV station RCTV, a ferocious campaign has been unleashed in Italy (as well as in all the Western countries), accusing Hugo Chavez of attacking freedom of information in order to "shut up the Opposition".

Most of the mainstream Italian newspapers have joined the campaign, however the arguments used to back this campaign are definitely groundless and based on false assumptions.

One of the most frequent accusations is that the Venezuelan government has turned off one of the few private Venezuelan TV stations, thus silencing one of the few independent sources of information. This is supposedly because this TV station "was an obstacle to Chavez' populist project". These are utter falsifications and we can easily prove this:

"Hugo Chavez shut down RCTV"

Hugo Chavez has not shut down RCTV. RCTV was allowed to broadcast its programmes through TV frequencies, which are a public good, and which are periodically assigned by the government to one TV station or another. When the licence expires on May 28, the licence will not be renewed to RCTV. Venezuelan law (and it must be noted - the law of any other country) does not say that the government should assign TV frequencies to the same companies all the time, but allows it to choose. We are going to deal in a moment with the reasons why the Bolivarian government decided to deny the renewal of the licence.

"RCTV is one of the few Venezuelan private TV stations"

According to an official June 2006 report from the Venezuelan Ministry of Communications and Information, the vast majority of Venezuelan mass media (TV and Radio channels, newspapers) are today in the hands of private owners. In particular, as far as the television sector is concerned, 90% of the market is in the hands of 4 private TV companies: RCTV, Globovision, Televen and Venevision. The owner of RCTV, Marcel Granier, owns another 40 TV stations throughout Venezuela (most of them of course are local TV channels). To be accurate 79 out of a total of 81 TV channels (or 97%) are private; 706 out of 709 Radio channels (or 99%) and all 118 newspapers are in private hands.

"RCTV was an obstacle for Chavez' populist project"

It is not the purpose of this article to deal with definitions of Hugo Chavez' project. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that the media owned by our local entrepreneurs, tend to label as "populist" each and every political project that does not base itself on the support or acceptance of the exploitation of labour.

It might be better to spell out what is meant when it is said that RCTV was an obstacle for the policies of the Bolivarian government. The plain truth is that RCTV had been directly and openly involved in the April 11, 2002 coup that attempted to oust the democratically elected president Hugo Chavez. The participation of RCTV in the coup plot was so blatant that the Production Manager f RCTVat the time o, Andres Izarra, who opposed the coup, resigned hastily in order not to be a party to a crime. In an official testimony to the Venezuelan National Assembly, Izarra reported that he was instructed formally by Granier the same day of the coup and during the following days not to broadcast any information on Chavez, his personnel, the ministers or whoever could be related to him.

This is exactly what happened. RCTV only reported that President Chavez had resigned from office (which was a blatant lie - as he had been kidnapped by the coup plotters...). And when two days later millions of Venezuelans took the streets demanding that the legitimate president they elected should come back, RCTV broadcasted just cartoons!

An inspiring account of those days is the documentary made out of the footage shot by an Irish troupe that was "trapped" in the Miraflores presidential palace during the coup. The documentary carries a significant title: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised".

"Shutting down RCTV means silencing one of the few sources of information which do not depend directly on the state"

As we already explained, this is not the case - at all! The majority of the media in Venezuela side openly with the Opposition to Chavez' government. It's a curious paradox that in a country where the Government is supported by nearly two thirds of the population (according to the December 2006 presidential elections), the vast majority of the media are actively campaigning against it.

In 2002 even Human Rights Watch, which otherwise supports the mainstream campaign against the Venezuelan Government, had to admit that "Far from providing fair and accurate reporting, the media by and large seek to provoke popular discontent and outrage in support of the hard-line opposition" (Venezuela's Political Crisis," Human Rights News, Human Rights Watch, October 9, 2002).

In spite of this, the Venezuelan government has been so tolerant on opposition media that no TV stations, radios or newspapers have been closed, and just now, after five years, the government decided not to renew the frequency licence to RCTV. We ask, which other "democratic" country could accept that a TV channel openly supporting a coup plot would go on broadcasting after the failure of such an attempt? Which other country would accept that the owner of such a TV channel should not face trial for having supported a coup?

In Italy, for example, we had the Prime Minister of a so-called democratic country, Berlusconi, banning through a "diktat" from the TV screens of both the state and private TVs two popular journalists (Biagi and Santoro) and a satirical actor (Luttazzi), just because they were criticising his government!

Simon Bolivar said that a people could never be free if freedom of speech is not granted. That is definitely true. But we should ask ourselves whether this freedom of speech is really granted by a system where the mass media are in the hands of a clique of a few wealthy people and serve the interests of those few against the interests of the majority of the people.

For more on RCTV's case, watch the "Is the venezuelan TV channel RCTV being closed? " documentary or donwload the Venezuela Information Office Fact-Sheet on RCTV