Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Opposition Mayor Shuts Down Community TV Station

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Jul 16 2003 (IPS) - The Venezuelan government and rights activists charge that the Caracas city hall – under a mayor who opposes the Hugo Chávez administration – has violated freedom of expression by ordering the closure of a community television station.

Mayor Alfredo Peña ordered Catia TV, a community broadcaster in the working-class neighbourhoods of western Caracas, to be shut down.

The closure on Jul. 10 "was a surprise, without an advisory of eviction or any order issued by a court, and furthermore without the presence of an official from the Public Ministry or other procedure in which we could exercise the right to defence," the station’s director, Ricardo Márquez, told IPS.

The community broadcaster operated out of the fifth floor of a hospital in Lídice, a district of Gran Catia, in western Caracas, home to around a million people.

Peña said he had based his decision on a request from staff at the medical centre managed by the municipal government, who said that the station had not been in operation for the past year.

But the municipal health directorate said the shutdown was because the broadcaster disrupted hospital activities.

For the past two years Venezuela has seen heated debate between the Chávez government and the major privately-owned media, particularly the TV networks, which denounce state pressures they say are intended to force them into silence – something that has not occurred so far.

The opposition has closed ranks in defence of the private TV companies, including the staging of massive street marches. Ironically, the first concrete and direct measure against the media has come from within the anti-Chávez movement.

Adding to the irony is the fact that the Caracas mayor is himself a former journalist who for several years headed El Nacional newspaper and hosted a TV commentary show that focused on denunciations of corruption and on defence of democratic freedoms.

Peña won the Caracas mayor’s seat in December 2000 with backing from Chávez’s ruling Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), but over the following year he began to distance himself from the federal government and ultimately became a leader of the opposition bloc that is seeking the president’s removal from office.

"Officials from city hall closed our offices with bars and locks on July 10, and blocked our access to the studios, antenna and transmission equipment," said station director Márquez.

Catia TV president Blanca Eekhout commented that the closure "is a flagrant offence against freedom of expression in a community that has produced and broadcast its own programmes for the past year and a half, and harkens back to the attacks on the community media outlets during the dictatorship of Pedro Carmona."

Carmona, former leader of Venezuela’s leading business association, Fedecámaras, was named de facto president Apr. 12, 2002, by the military commanders who staged a short-lived coup against the Chávez government.

Forty-eight hours later, Chávez was returned to the presidency by loyal military officers and backed by thousands of civilians.

Among the multitude of citizens who rallied around the government palace at the time, many were from Catia.

During the ephemeral Carmona government, the state-run Venezolana de Televisión was shut down, and the private TV stations refused to broadcast the Apr. 13 popular uprising, which Chávez spokespersons repeatedly note as "proof that the ones who most violate freedoms of expression are the opposition."

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders issued a statement exhorting Peña to give an explanation for the Catia TV closure.

"We ask you to explain your reasons for closing the premises of Catia TV and at the same time we remind you that, whatever they are, they could not justify forcing this station off the air," wrote the organisation’s secretary-general Robert Ménard.

Provea, one of Venezuela’s leading human rights groups, called the closure a "denial of the rights to freedom of expression and information consecrated in the constitution," and demanded that the city government "immediately restore these legal guarantees."

The Community Media Association added its voice to the demands and declared, "Mayor Peña is depriving the working class communities of western Caracas of the right to inform themselves and express themselves independently."

"The one who has shut down a media outlet is not President Chávez but rather one of his most ferocious opponents," said the Association.

Peña, meanwhile, defended his actions saying, "The medical community, nurses and staff requested that the broadcaster move out of that location. The TV station had been a year without operating. The locks and bars were installed to protect the equipment."

"All my life, throughout more than 30 years of practicing journalism, I have fought for freedom of expression. I would never do anything to violate that right," said the mayor.

But the municipal government’s health director, doctor Pedro Aristimuño, said the site was shut down "because of the noise and traffic of unknown persons in the hospital, disrupting the normal activities of a hospital."

Director Márquez responded that Catia TV "broadcasts an average of five or six hours of programming daily, every afternoon, particularly programmes produced by the community itself."

"It is not true that we have been inactive, as proven by Aristimuño’s statement and the messages of solidarity we have received from the various neighbourhoods throughout Catia."

"It is a little strange that a TV station would be based in a hospital, but it was the current city administration that granted the permits, and if they decided it was inappropriate to continue, they could have negotiated a new agreement, not go straight to a closure," Olga Dragnic, of the Venezuelan chapter of the non-governmental World Media Observatory.

Catia TV president Eekhout explained that the station had set up in the hospital "because it has been part of the relationship between the users of this centre and the community. Even community football tournaments have taken place at the hospital’s fields."

Pro-Chávez parliamentarians are proposing a debate in the National Assembly about the Catia TV closure.

"They took away the voice of the neighbourhood residents. It is a shame that it was a journalist who did this," said Desirée Santos, deputy of the MVR and board member of the College of Journalists, when she issued a statement calling for an explanation from the mayor.

Information Minister Jesse Chacón announced that the government will support the Catia TV executives in complaints brought before national and international institutions, and ordered an investigation to determine whether the surprise shutdown of the station violated Venezuela’s Telecommunications Act.

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