The Venezuelan government’s unprecedented decision not to renew the broadcast concession of the country’s oldest private television station, RCTV, represented a major setback for free expression and democracy. The decision, aimed at silencing Venezuela’s most critical media outlet, was part of President Hugo Chávez Frías’ aggressive strategy to challenge the influence of the private press as he expanded the reach of state media. But as Chávez reached for further power in late year, he suffered his first major blow at the polls. Voters narrowly rejected a constitutional overhaul that would have allowed the government to censor the news media.
On May 27, after 53 years of continuous broadcasting, RCTV was forced off the air when the government refused to renew its broadcast concession. The president and top officials accused the station—known for its strident antigovernment views—of violating the constitution and the country’s broadcast laws, and of collaborating with planners of a 2002 coup against Chávez. In late March, the Ministry of Communication and Information issued a 360-page document, El Libro Blanco sobre RCTV (The White Book on RCTV), to justify the decision. The document asserted that the government had full discretion on whether to renew broadcast concessions first granted to RCTV and other broadcasters for 20-year terms under a 1987 decree. Jesse Chacón, minister of telecommunications, said at a March press conference that the RCTV decision was not a sanction but simply the “natural and inexorable” result of the concession’s expiration.
An April CPJ special report, “Static in Venezuela,” concluded that the government had failed to conduct a transparent review of RCTV’s concession renewal. The report, based on a three-month investigation, found that officials had acted arbitrarily and with political motivations in silencing the station. The government did not follow any discernible application process and provided RCTV no opportunity to respond to the allegations against it, according to CPJ’s Carlos Lauría and Sauro González Rodríguez. The report was based on dozens of interviews conducted during a joint mission by CPJ and Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, a regional Peru-based press group.
RCTV filed several appeals to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice to no immediate avail. In May, CPJ wrote a letter to Chávez urging him to allow RCTV to continue broadcasting while its appeals were pending.
Sworn in for a second six-year term in January, Chávez pledged to move Venezuela toward socialism, interpreting his victory in the prior month’s election as a mandate to accelerate his agenda. Days after he took office, he announced plans to nationalize companies in the telecommunications and electricity industries. The National Assembly—stacked with government supporters since the opposition boycotted the 2005 legislative elections—unanimously approved a law granting Chávez the power to legislate by decree in key areas for 18 months.
But voters turned back an effort to further strengthen presidential powers in a heated December 2 referendum. By a vote of 51 to 49 percent, Venezuelans rejected a package of constitutional changes that would have eliminated presidential term limits, scrapped central bank autonomy, redefined property rights, and restricted press freedom during states of emergency. The changes would have effectively revoked the 2001 Organic Law on States of Exception, which says that freedom of thought and access to information cannot be restricted even in emergencies. Press freedom advocates said the constitutional changes would have been a great setback.
As the government moved aggressively to silence critical media outlets, it continued to invest in state-owned media, budgeting 362 billion bolívares (US$169 million) for state media in the last two years. Since 2003, the government has financed the startup of ViVe TV, a cultural and educational television network with nationwide coverage; ANTV, which broadcasts National Assembly sessions; and Ávila TV, a regional channel run by the city of Caracas. In July 2005, it launched Telesur, a 24-hour television news channel that has grown into a pan-Latin American broadcaster with the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Cuba as minority stakeholders. In late 2006, Telesur acquired Caracas-based broadcast channel CMT in order to expand its domestic reach beyond cable and satellite subscribers. VTV, which had been neglected by previous administrations, received an infusion of technology that allowed the channel to improve the quality and reach of its signal.
In addition, the administration has created a large network of alternative and community media, including television and radio stations, newspapers, and Web sites basically intended to disseminate the official line and discredit critical journalists and media owners, according to CPJ research. It has also filled staff positions with activists and supporters as a means of manipulating content and guaranteeing favorable coverage. Government officials say they believe that, by giving voice to community media, they are ensuring pluralism and diversity.
RCTV’s frequency was reassigned to a new public-access station called Televisora Venezolana Social (TVes), which began broadcasting just hours after RCTV went off the air. While the government said it would not dictate the station’s editorial line, five of the seven members of the TVes board of directors—including its president—were appointed by Chávez. Analysts said the new station’s programming showed a lack of pluralism and diversity. “It can’t be called public service television, a station that has [had] an obvious political preference since its launch,” wrote Andrés Cañizález, a researcher at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas who has been critical of Chávez.
RCTV International, meanwhile, launched a paid-subscription service via cable and satellite on July 16. The station’s new signal, carried locally by four cable operators and one satellite provider, offered most of the same programming as before, including news, comedy, and soap operas.
Authorities quickly moved in to say that RCTV must register with the National Telecommunications Commission and comply with the 2004 social responsibility law. The law compels national stations to broadcast a certain amount of state-produced programming and children’s shows, and to carry live Chávez’s cadenas—simultaneous radio and television broadcasts of the president’s speeches. RCTV International argued that the station is similar to other international cable channels such as CNN, which are not regulated by the social responsibility law. A stay issued in early August by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice allowed RCTV International and dozens of regional stations to remain on cable temporarily while the government established clear rules as to which stations should be affected by the law.
With RCTV off the public airwaves, there were no national broadcasters left that were critical of the government. Venevisión, led by media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, had removed opinion and news shows that were highly critical of Chávez after Cisneros met with the Venezuelan president in June 2004. Shortly before cutting RCTV’s signal, the government announced it was renewing for five years the broadcast concessions of other television stations whose licenses ended on May 27, including Venevisión and state-owned Venezolana de Televisión.
Only local broadcaster Globovisión, whose programs air in metropolitan Caracas and the northern state of Carabobo, remained critical in its coverage. Although the station’s concession doesn’t expire until 2015, Globovisión executives were nonetheless worried about government intimidation. The day RCTV went off the air, Minister of Communication and Information Willian Lara filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office accusing Globovisión of inciting violence against Chávez after the station aired file footage of a 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in Rome. Lara said that the broadcast was an incitement to assassinate Chávez, and he accused the network of bias against the administration. Globovisión’s director, Alberto Federico Ravell, denied the accusations.
The use of cadenas to counter the private media’s news coverage exemplified the government’s effort to amplify its voice. Since Chávez first took office in 1999, Venezuelan television programming had been pre-empted for more than 1,500 cadenas, the equivalent of almost 1,000 broadcast hours, according to AGB Nielsen Media Research. Chávez’s weekly radio and TV program, “Aló, Presidente,” spanned more than 1,000 hours from its inception in 2000 to the end of 2007. The average duration of the program in 2007 was nearly six hours, AGB Nielsen found.
Telesur President Andrés Izarra put the government’s media strategy plainly in a January 8 interview with the Caracas daily El Nacional. The administration’s aim, Izarra said, is “communication and information hegemony.”