Hugo Chávez Frías
President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Palacio de Miraflores
Via facsimile: 58-212-864-6002
The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express serious concern about Venezuela's commitment to free expression in the wake of your government's unprecedented decision not to renew the broadcast concession of the country's oldest private television station, RCTV, which expires Sunday.
On Wednesday, the political-administrative chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice dismissed a petition for "precautionary measures" filed by RCTV to avoid the station's closure. According to the court's resolution, however, a March appeal seeking to annul the decision was admitted by the highest tribunal. Though RCTV must stop broadcasting, the court said it will review the appeal and could eventually overturn the decision.
On May 17, the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Tribunal had dismissed another appeal filed by RCTV in February seeking to protect its constitutional rights to apply for concession renewal.
Your government has recently announced that RCTV's frequency will be replaced by a new public service television broadcaster called Venezuelan Social Television Station (TEVES). Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacón said that RCTV would stop broadcasting at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, and that TEVES would go on the air shortly after midnight.
While Minister of Communication and Information Willian Lara said that TEVES' editorial line would not be dictated by your administration, we fear that the broadcaster will effectively operate as a government organ. Five of the seven members of the board of directors will be appointed by the executive, as stated in your signed decree.
On April 24, CPJ issued an in-depth report, "Static in Venezuela," that concluded your government failed to conduct a fair and transparent review of RCTV's concession renewal. The report, based on a three-month investigation, found the government's decision was a predetermined and politically motivated effort to silence critical coverage. Founded in 1953, RCTV has expressed strident opposition to your administration.
Your administration has said that the decision concerning RCTV was not a sanction but simply the "natural and inexorable" result of the concession's expiration. Yet you and other high-ranking officials have repeatedly accused RCTV employees of being "coup mongers" for the station's support of a failed 2002 coup, of violating Venezuelan law, and of broadcasting pornography. CPJ believes that these accusations were used as a pretext to support the decision; the government has issued no sanctions or rulings against RCTV for these alleged violations.
The threat of losing access to the airwaves hangs over dozens of other television and radio stations whose licenses have also come up for renewal, prompting some news outlets to pull back on critical programming, CPJ research has found. The RCTV decision also comes as your administration has moved aggressively to expand state media and amplify its voice.
Officials in your administration have said that RCTV can continue to operate on cable or satellite--yet such transmission would reach only a fraction of the station's current audience. While the media in Venezuela have been able to criticize your government forcefully until now, this decision sets a chilling precedent. We call on your government to uphold the international standards of free expression to which it has committed, to ensure RCTV is given every opportunity to pursue this matter in court, and to allow RCTV to continue broadcasting while its appeal is pending.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. We await your reply.