President Hugo Chavez, not satisfied with closing RCTV, the most popular TV station in the Venezuela, yesterday threatened another private TV station, by launching an investigation as to whether Globovision, the only remaining broadcaster that is not government-controlled, was using subliminal messages to incite an assassination attempt on the president. Chavez threatened the opposition, saying that he is prepared to die to defend his beliefs and asking if opposition media outlets are similarly prepared.
In what is becoming the land of Chavez, investigations on the suspicion of subliminal messages are just as credible as pulling the RCTV license of without any judicial deliberation.
Here’s what has happened:
On Sunday May 27 at 11:58 PM, Caracas television station RCTV Radio Caracas TV stopped broadcasting after its license renewal was denied by Hugo Chavez. RCTV was the only media organ whose license was not renewed.
There was no judicial deliberation involved in the closing.
The license was denied by decree, not by due process of law. Chavez himself has stated
“The decision was mine” to close RCTV, Chavez said Saturday, calling its steamy soap operas “a danger for the country, for boys, for girls.”
Steamy soap operas were not what was keeping Hugo awake at night.
The real reason was that RCTV was the most popular TV station, with the largest share of the market (over 40%), and its management was clear about the fact that it opposed the Chavez regime.
Chavez was acting well within his powers by closing the station. As I pointed out in my February 1 article, the Venezuelan National Assembly, by enacting the Enabling Law, La Ley Habilitante last January, granted Chavez full powers to rule by edict. The Enabling Law gave him all the authority to enact any laws of transition and to repeal laws no longer in effect. Chavez is now pressing for a constitutional amendment to grant him the power to be re-elected indefinitely.
While the Venezuelan Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, communication and information, those freedoms need to be defended by institutions. Chavez currently controls all of the country’s institutions: the courts, the military, the National Assembly. Most of the state governments are also in Chavista hands.
The media is now largely under Chavista control. As Casto Ocando of Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Dia, correctly points out, ten out of twelve Venezuelan TV stations are directly or indirectly controlled by the government.
But Chavez is still not satisfied. He’s aiming for “informational hegemony“.
Venezuelan journalists were prosecuted for criticizing the government.
It was in this atmosphere that RCTV came in the crosshairs, in March, the station was notified that its license would not be renewed.
Last Saturday, RCTV made a last-ditch effort and filed charges with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. Demonstrators crowded the streets.
But all to no avail. On Sunday RCTV stopped broadcasting, its assets were confiscated by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, and state-run TVES started broadcasting in its place.
After the president of the Inter-American Press Association gave a press conference stating that the closing of RCTV “was intended to standardize the right to information, and results in a very bleak outlook for the whole hemisphere”, Maria Alejandra Diaz, the social responsibility director at the Communications Ministry, asked news organizations to refrain from reporting on the Association’s statement or showing the press conference. The reason? It could allow viewers, readers or listeners to think Mr. Ch√°vez’s government was “tyrannical.”
At the same time, Ms Diaz threatened to shut down the media for three days.
Across town, Globovision, the only other major opposition-aligned channel, but which is not seen in all parts of the country, was being vandalized. On Sunday, Globovision boldly forged ahead and was the only station to air footage of one of the demonstrations.
By Monday the street demonstrations were getting worse. Police were firing rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons at the demonstrators, and international cable news like Fox, CNN, and others, had reporters on the scene.
Now Globovision is under fire, as is CNN. Communications Minister William Lara has filed lawsuits at the state prosecutor’s office against both.
Tuesday the street demonstrations continued. CNN International estimated that 15,000 people were demonstrating. Adam Housley of Fox News reported that Chavez had asked his supporters to come down from the mountains and fight the demonstrators, while the police continued to fire rubber bullets and tear gas at them.
And now Hugo is ominously asking the opposition if they’re prepared to die for their beliefs.
What do we learn from this?
• First, as Samizdata pointed out, democracy is no sure defense against tyranny: Indeed, history, from back in Roman times, shows that tyranny frequently comes to power through legitimate means.
• Constitutional guarantees mean nothing without the support of independent and strong national institutions.
• International organizations do not carry much weight: Reporters Without Borders, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Foundation, and Amnesty International all filed resolutions condemning the closing of RCTV. They were ignored.
• Many left-wing voices in the U.S. are not interested in freedom of expression. Daily Kos, Tariq Ali, and others believe that RCTV got what was coming to it.
• Chavez is not at all interested in the opinions of other countries: Chile, Peru, the US Senate, and the European Parliament have condemned Chavez’s decision not to renew RCTV’s license. What he wants is to implement his “informational hegemony”.
The underlying message of this disturbing chain of events is clear.
Chavez will keep at it until there is no free press left and no one to report it.
Fausta Wertz writes on New Jersey, taxation, current events, and the French and Spanish-language media at Fausta’s Blog.