Political and media tensions grew to unprecedented heights in 2007, with the shutting down of the terrestrial service of the TV station RCTV in May and the December constitutional referendum. The action against RCTV partly explained the government’s defeat in the referendum.
The country’s oldest and most popular TV station, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), stopped terrestrial broadcasting on 27 May 2007 after the government of President Hugo Chávez refused to renew its 20-year frequency licence granted in 1987. Chávez had said in December 2006 that it would not be renewed because of the station’s backing for the failed coup against him in 2002. The station appealed to the supreme court in vain. It had not been legally convicted of anything serious during the previous licence period (and not for “participating” in the coup) so it was legally entitled to a renewal. But revenge for the 2002 coup does not seem to be the real reason for the non-renewal.
The TV station Venevisión, owned by industrialist Gustavo Cisneros and also criticised by the government for backing the coup, was allowed to continue terrestrial broadcasting when its own frequency licence expired the same day as RCTV’s. The station had already, as a precaution, taken a more pro-government stance, as had a third privately-owned station, Televen. When it passed its terrestrial frequency to a state-owned station, Televisora venezolana social (Tves), RCTV also had to hand over its equipment and 59 transmitters nationwide. This requirement, decided by the supreme court two days before the RCTV licence expired, violated the 2000 telecommunications law that says frequencies are state property while equipment belongs to the stations. The station appealed to the courts on this point.
RCTV became RCTV Internacional and was able to resume its cable and satellite services on 16 July 2007, but was immediately ordered by the government to stop because it had not been registered as a “national broadcasting producer.” This had never been demanded of other international cable TV stations operating in the country, especially Telesur, the pan-American news station founded by Chávez in 2005. The supreme court ruled on 1 August in RCTV’s favour on this point and it was allowed to continue its cable service. Meanwhile the government said it would extend to cable and satellite networks the “cadena” arrangement that allows the president to requisition all terrestrial media outlets for his lengthy speeches. Meanwhile a review of RCTV’s status as regards cable may force it to close altogether.
The RCTV episode was not revenge but a move by Chávez to take over the country’s media. Supported by Eleazar Díaz Rangel, boss of the main national daily paper, Últimas Noticias, he pushed in 2007 for creation of 60 or so alternative and community newspapers to counter the influence of local pro-opposition dailies. Chávez controls nearly all the country’s broadcasting - a score of radio stations, the state-owned TV stations Venezolana de Televisión, Telesur, Vive TV, Asemblea Nacional and Tves, as well as the national phone company CANTV. He made use of the “cadena” arrangement about 1,500 times between January 1999 and November 2007, totalling more than 900 hours of airtime, plus about 1,000 hours over the same period for his Sunday show Aló Presidente, put out by VTV.
Except for a few radio stations, Globovisión, which can only be heard in the Caracas area, is now the only terrestrial TV station critical of the government. But its requests for extension of its terrestrial licence have always been rejected. When it broadcast film of the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II just as Chávez was criticising his successor Pope Benedict XVI, the government accused it on 28 May 2007 of “inciting” people to murder Chávez. The station is also being investigated by legal officials for putting out election ads before the official opening of the December referendum campaign, though government-owned TV stations that did the same thing were not reproached.
A step too far?
Chávez’ loss of the 2 December referendum was perhaps an echo of his move against RCTV, which drew opposition even from his supporters and elsewhere in the Americas. Many journalists were physically attacked during the referendum campaign protests, especially those by students, which followed demonstrations in May against the moves to shut down RCTV. The violence, like coverage of the debate, showed how polarised society had become, with state and privately-owned media outlets as symbols of irreconcilable political camps.
Francia Sánchez, of RCTV Internacional, and Diana Carolina Ruiz, of Globovisión, were physically attacked in front of parliament on 15 October as police stood by. Paulina Moreno, of the state-owned TV Avila, was injured by a bomb blast in Caracas on 25 October and constitutional reform opponents sprayed her technicians with insecticide. Member of parliament Iris Varela of the ruling party burst into the studios of Televisión Regional del Táchira (TRT) in the western city of San Cristóbal, on 20 November, as Gustavo Azócar was presenting his programme “Café con Azócar,” She said she had been insulted by the journalist, refused his offer a right of reply and smashed station equipment. Eduardo Silvera, of the state-owned VTV, and his technicians were physically attacked by government opponents on 29 November.
Polarisation also built up around the constitutional reform itself, which was criticised by some pro-government parties. Two articles of the new constitution (which was rejected by 51% of voters) could have dealt a very heavy blow to press freedom. One of them would allow the president to declare an unlimited state of emergency without the approval of the supreme court and the other would allow him during the emergency to suspend some constitutional guarantees, include the right to freely inform the public. The country’s media had a close shave. It remains to be seen if, as some fear, Chávez will try to get through legislation what he failed to get through the referendum. Also what use will he make of the list drawn up by lawyer Eva Golinger on 25 May of about 30 names of opposition sympathisers, including three journalists, accused of being “in the pay of the American empire” ?