Venezuela’s RCTV off the air; CPJ urges government to respect dissent

New York, May 29, 2007—Venezuela’s commitment to democracy has suffered a serious blow as the government forced private television station RCTV off the air for political reasons on Monday after 53 years of continuous broadcasting, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

“This arbitrary decision thwarts Venezuelans’ right to seek and receive information and represents a setback for democracy in this country,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Not only has a dissenting voice been silenced but message has been sent to the media as a whole.”

RCTV, known for its strong opposition views, stopped broadcasting at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday. The broadcaster’s employees, including actors, presenters, reporters and directors, gathered in a large studio just before midnight, singing popular Venezuelan songs and pledging that they would return to the airwaves.

RCTV’s frequency was replaced by a new public service broadcaster called Venezuelan Social Television Station (TVES). The new channel began broadcasting early Monday with the national anthem and a speech by its president, Lil Rodríguez, who said that “Venezuelans just gave birth to a new alternative in television,” according to local press reports.

While the government said that it won’t dictate the station’s editorial line, five of the seven members of the board of directors—including the president—were appointed by the executive.

The government announced on Friday that it was renewing the broadcast concession of other television stations whose licenses ended on May 27, including private station Venevision and state-owned Venezolana de Televisión (VTV).

Shortly after RCTV ceased transmissions, several protests broke out across Caracas and continued on Monday on university campuses, according to the press. Police fired tear gas, used water cannons, and shot rubber bullets into crowds of thousands protesting the government’s decision. Several people were injured during the incidents.

On Friday, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, Venezuela’s highest court, ruled that RCTV’s broadcasting equipment and infrastructure must be made available to TVES. According to the tribunal’s Web site, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) assumes responsibility for RCTV’s equipment, including microwave dishes and antennas, while the court reviews RCTV’s appeal of Chavez’ decision not to renew its broadcast concession. The court also ordered the military to temporarily guard the equipment used by RCTV.

On Monday, the Minister of Communication and Information Willian Lara filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office accusing private broadcaster Globovisión of inciting violence against Chávez, after the station aired file footage of a 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II. And citing a sequence of images on CNN that included figures from the Middle East and China, Lara accused the network of bias against the administration. Globovisión Director Alberto Ravell rejected the accusation, while CNN denied being engaged in a campaign against Venezuela.

On April 24, CPJ issued an in-depth report, “Static in Venezuela,” which concluded that the Venezuelan 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.

A March appeal seeking to annul the government’s decision had been admitted by Supreme Tribunal of Justice. The court said it will review the appeal and could eventually overturn the decision. On Thursday, CPJ wrote a letter to President Chávez urging him to allow RCTV to continue broadcasting while its appeal is pending.