Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Marches and Counter-Marches Over TV Station’s End

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, May 21 2007 (IPS) - Hundreds of journalists and students carried a one-kilometre banner reading “S.O.S. Freedom of Expression”, written in 10 languages with letters one metre high, through the Venezuelan capital Monday to protest the authorities’ decision not to renew the broadcasting licence of the country’s most popular TV station.

The concession used by the Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) station – Venezuela’s oldest – since 1953 will not be renewed, on the orders of President Hugo Chávez, who cited the role played by the station during the April 2002 coup in which the president was overthrown for two days and infringements of broadcasting regulations.

In its place, Channel 2 will be operated by a foundation, Televisora Venezolana Social (Teves), designated and financed by the government, which will provide a space for independent producers, with the aim of creating a public service station.

While employees of various media outlets carried the banner for several kilometres under the burning midday sun to the Caracas office of the Organisation of American States (OAS), several members of the board of directors of Teves, headed by radio personality Lil Rodríguez, were sworn in to their new posts.

The protesters, who claimed to carry “the longest banner in Latin America”, with inscriptions in Spanish, English, French, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, German and Italian, were joined along the way by groups of local residents from middle-class neighbourhoods who helped carry the enormous banner.

“This is like a message to the world in a bottle, to denounce the crisis of freedom of expression in Venezuela and the abuses suffered by reporters and media outlets, as demonstrated by this unjustified closure of RCTV,” the secretary-general of the Press Workers Union, Gregorio Salazar, told IPS.

Opposition politicians and those affected by the government decision say RCTV is the target of political retaliation because of its open opposition to the Chávez administration. The station has brought legal action before the Supreme Court.

On May 17, the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court threw out a plea filed by RCTV in February in which it asked the Court to declare illegal the decision not to renew the concession.

But in April, RCTV filed a new lawsuit before another chamber of the Court, which is expected to hand down a verdict in the next few days.

Journalism student Ana Hernández told IPS during the demonstration that “what we won’t accept sitting down is for the government to say who can talk and who cannot, and what people can watch and what they can’t; that’s not what we’re studying for.”

Rafael Fuenmayor, a reporter with the Globovisión TV news station, said he was “moved by the way people in the street have supported this spontaneous initiative” by journalists.

Opposition parties and RCTV organised their own colourful march on Saturday, in which around 30,000 people took to the streets to protest the government decision. Demonstrations have also been held in Maracaibo and Valencia, the second and third-largest cities in Venezuela.

At the same time, reporters and other professionals who support the government organised a convoy of hundreds of cars that drove across Caracas on Sunday. Another pro-Chávez rally has been called for May 27, the day RCTV’s licence expires, when demonstrators will gather outside of the company’s headquarters to show that they back the refusal to renew the concession and to express support for the new Teves station.

“The government is in its right to refuse to renew the concession to the coup-supporting station and in its stead to offer alternative programming for Venezuelans,” said Dr. Fernando Bianco, who took part in the caravan. “This is not a closure of the station; it is non-renewal of the licence.”

The privately-owned media in Venezuela have a reputation of vociferous opposition to Chávez. During the short-lived de facto government proclaimed after the Apr. 12, 2002 coup, the state-run Venezolana de Televisión station was shut down, and private stations like RCTV refused to provide coverage of the Apr. 13 popular uprising that swept Chávez back to power with the support of loyal army troops, airing instead reruns and old Hollywood films.

But critics argue that since the government and its allies have a public station, Channel 8, several regional stations and the multinational Telesur network, Teves will be a boring clone of existing official programming.

Information Minister Willian Lara said Monday that “for those who believe the station will be tiresome, Rodríguez’s mere name shows them that will not be so.”

Rodríguez, an experienced radio broadcaster and commentator on Caribbean music styles, promised that Teves will be broadly inclusive and that the foundation will not decide on content, which will be in the hands of independent producers.

“This will be a fun channel, which will combine entertainment with the values of the blueprint for our country that we Venezuelans believe in. It will also be a station that will maintain a strategic alliance with the educational system,” said Lara.

The government appointed five of the seven members of the Teves board of directors (two of the seats are reserved for representatives of the producers and consumers), choosing media industry workers aligned with the administration. It also made four million dollars in seed money available to the foundation.

Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacón announced that RCTV would stop broadcasting at 23:59 on May 27, and that Teves would go on the air shortly after midnight.

In the first few months, the new station’s programming will only be available in the capital and part of western Venezuela, as it does not have enough antennas to broadcast nationwide.

According to the private polling companies Datanálisis and Hinterlaces, between 70 and 80 percent of respondents were opposed to the de facto closure of RCTV.

Chávez was reelected to another term in December in a landslide victory, taking 63 percent of the vote – a similar level of support that he enjoyed in earlier polls, such as the 2004 recall referendum.

International media business and worker organisations, rights groups like the London-based Amnesty International, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights all urged the government to modify its decision.

The measure also triggered a row early this year between Chávez and OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza. The president later threatened to pull Venezuela out of the hemispheric body if his government were sanctioned for not renewing RCTV’s licence.

The concessions of two other private stations, Venevisión and Televen, which also expire on May 27, were renewed for another five years. Like RCTV, both stations were fiercely critical of Chávez during the 2002 coup and subsequent political crisis, but later toned down the bias of their coverage.

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