Venezuela bars RCTV, 5 other stations from cable, satellite

New York, January 25, 2010—Venezuelan regulators have ordered cable and satellite operators to stop carrying one of the country’s best known broadcasters, RCTV International, along with five other stations, alleging that the broadcasters violated a requirement to air President Hugo Chávez’s speeches. The Committee to Protect Journalists urged Venezuelan authorities today to allow all of the stations to resume operations immediately.

On orders from the National Telecommunication Commission (CONATEL), cable and satellite providers stopped transmitting RCTV International and five other stations shortly after midnight on Sunday, local press reports said. The action against RCTV and the other stations—Ritmo Son, Momentum, America TV, American Network, and TV Chile—was taken after the stations chose not to air a speech by Chávez on Saturday. The next day, during his weekly radio and TV program “Aló Presidente,” Chávez said, “We applied the law. If they don’t follow it, they won’t be allowed back on the air.”

Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, said the move reflects increasing government censorship. “Pulling a television station from cable and satellite distribution because it chooses not to carry every word uttered by a politician would be laughable if this weren’t Venezuela,” he said. “The action against RCTV is a disturbing sign of the growing censorship imposed by President Hugo Chavez. The authorities must restore all stations to subscription TV immediately.”

Government regulators contend that RCTV is a national broadcaster and, as such, must comply with Venezuelan broadcasting regulations, including the 2004 Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television, press reports said. According to the social responsibility law, which has been widely criticized for its broad and vaguely worded restrictions on free expression, broadcasters must carry government programming when officials deem it necessary. That includes live broadcasts of Chávez’s nationwide addresses, known as cadenas.

According to a CONATEL regulation implemented on December 22, cable and satellite channels are considered “international” only if 70 percent or more of their programming is foreign. CONATEL has determined that RCTV is a national broadcaster.

But RCTV has long argued that its programming meets the definition of an international channel. The station sought an injunction on Friday from the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, according to an RCTV lawyer.

RCTV has been operating as a paid subscription channel since July 16, 2007, after the government pulled the station from public airwaves in May of that year.  Known for its harsh opposition views, RCTV is the country’s oldest private station, with 57 years on the air and on cable and satellite. In a 2007 special report, “Static in Venezuela,” CPJ 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.