Hugo Chavez may be setting the stage for what he calls “21st century socialism,” but his communist revolution won’t be televised -- at least not by any television outlet not slavishly loyal to Venezuela’s emerging dictator.
Sending its clearest signal yet that 21st century socialism will be no more tolerant of free speech than its 20th century predecessor, the Venezuelan government, acting on earlier threats, last week refused to renew the license of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the country’s most watched and, with nearly 54 years on the air, oldest operating television broadcaster. Before the government-enforced blackout, the station had been among the last to retain its independence in a country where the media has been reduced to a propaganda arm of the regime. Replacing RCTV will be TVes, which has Chavez’s personal endorsement as “socialist television.” To add insult to injury, the Supreme Court, packed with government apparatchiks, has ruled that RCTV must also surrender its equipment to TVes.
“With this move, Chavez has crossed the dictatorial Rubicon,” Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based human rights watchdog the Human Rights Foundation (HRW), told me this week. A pro-democracy activist whose mother was murdered by Venezuelan security officers in 2004, Halvorssen notes that the clampdown against RCTV had been foreshadowed by Chavez’s increasingly militant diatribes against independent media.
As evidence, Halvorssen points to a short video posted on HRW’s website. In the video, available for view at www.freerctv.com a collection of excerpts of Chavez’s speaking appearances, the Venezuelan strongman repeatedly rails against the evils of press criticism. In one segment, Chavez vows to “identify the enemies of the revolution” in the media. Addressing opposition media in another clip, Chavez ominously declares, “Don’t be surprised if, one of these days, I act against you.” Equally alarming are the images of pro-government mobs, incited by Chavez’s demagogic assertions that the media is “poisoning” the “minds of the Venezuelan people,” attacking reporters and news cameramen. “It’s safer to cover gang warfare than the president’s speeches,” one media veteran despairs.
Chavez’s hostility to press freedom has long been evident. In 2004, a subservient legislature rammed through the notorious Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, which made “disrespect” for the government a crime punishable by a 20-month prison sentence. When threats of jail have proved inadequate to the task of suppressing criticism, the government has not disdained to hijack the airwaves. Literally: In the past few months alone, the government has interrupted regularly scheduled programming at least 39 times in order to air its propaganda broadcasts.
The result is that Venezuela’s media landscape has taken on a depressing conformity. And it will only get worse: With the forced exit of RCTV, the government will now control two of Venezuela’s four nationwide broadcasters. Chavez has long urged Venezuelans to “speak with one voice.” It is now clear that the voice he had in mind was his.
Ironically, given Chavez’s populist posturing as tribune of the people, the decision to close RCTV is deeply unpopular with the Venezuelan public. Polls taken last month showed that, even as they broadly support Chavez, some 70 to 80 percent of Venezuelans oppose the closure RCTV. Last week’s decision has already triggered five straight days of student-led counter-demonstrations. Police, armed with rubber bullets and tear gas, have of course sought to muzzle protestors, but the government’s credibility has nevertheless been shaken.
Even outside Venezuela, however, there are some on the Left willing to toe the government’s line. In a January interview with FrontPage, for instance, Mark Weisbrot of the pro-Chavez Center for Economic and Policy Research argued that the government was justified in refusing to issue a broadcast license to RCTV and rejected what he called “the media's pretense that the station was denied a license renewal because it is ‘critical of the government.’” Instead, Weisbrot claimed that RCTV had invited censorship by participating in a coup against the government in 2002.
Thor Halvorssen calls that defense little more than “smoke and mirrors.” He points out that, government claims notwithstanding, RCTV had no taken part in the coup. Furthermore, Halvorssen notes that Chavez himself has announced that he seeks to silence critical media, and that he has taken full responsibility for the crackdown. In that context, Halvorssen has few illusions about what the future holds for Venezuelan media. “What we can expect is that those who disagree with the government will no longer have a say,” he observes. “End of story.”
None of this is to say that Venezuela is now inhospitable to all media voices. Even as it muscled RCTV off the air, the government renewed the broadcasting silence of its main competitor, Venevision. On the one hand, this may seem strange. Owned by billionaire media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, Venevision would appear to be precisely the kind of media enterprise that Chavez has depicted as the sinister tool of “oligarchs” and other “bourgeois” enemies of the revolution -- especially considering that Cisneros once condemned Chavez for his “arrogant abuse of power and authority.” But that misses a key detail. In 2004, Cisneros abandoned his open opposition to Chavez. The lesson is clear: For media in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, accepting the death of dissent is the cost of doing business.
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