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Censorship or Democratization?
RCTV and Freedom of Speech in Venezuela
by GREGORY WILPERT

As far as world public opinion is concerned, as reflected in the international media, the pronouncements of freedom of expression groups, and of miscellaneous governments, Venezuela has finally taken the ultimate step to prove its opposition right: that Venezuela is heading towards a dictatorship. Judging by these pronouncements, freedom of speech is becoming ever more restricted in Venezuela as a result of the non-renewal of the broadcast license of the oppositional TV network RCTV. With RCTV going off the air at midnight of May 27th, the country’s most powerful opposition voice has supposedly been silenced.

It is generally taken for granted that any silencing of opposition voices is anti-freedom of speech. But is an opposition voice really being silenced? Is this the correct metaphor? Is the director of RCTV, Marcel Granier, actually being silenced? No, a better metaphor is that the megaphone that Granier (and others) used for the exercise of his free speech is being returned to its actual owners–a megaphone that he had borrowed, but never owned. Not only that, he is still allowed to use a smaller megaphone (cable & satellite).

In other words, the radio frequency that RCTV used for over half a century is being returned to its original owners-the Venezuelan people-under the management of its democratically elected leadership. Still, while the decision about how to use the airwaves might be the prerogative of the government (as many critics concede), critics of the move have a point when they complain that the freedom to use the airwaves cannot be solely a matter of majority rule. After all, shouldn’t minorities (in this case a mostly relatively wealthy minority) also have access to the megaphone, so it may use it to convince the majority of its point-of-view? At least, progressives who defend the rights of traditionally disenfranchised minorities would argue that minorities should always have access to the media. [1] Even though Marcel Granier and his friends cannot be considered to be a disenfranchised minority, surely this minority deserves to be heard in the media, at least a little bit, in the name of pluralism.

Chavez supporters concede the validity of this argument in that they counter by pointing out that the opposition still has plenty of broadcast frequencies to present its point-of-view. Their argument for the justness of the decision to let RCTV’s license expire for good is that, first, the opposition still has plenty of other media outlets to broadcast its views, second, RCTV is a subversive and law-breaking broadcaster (because it participated in the coup and oil industry shutdown, among other things), and third, it needs to make way for a new public service television channel that is mandated by the constitution. Let us briefly examine each of these arguments, starting with Venezuela’s media landscape.


Venezuela’s Media Landscape

As with most questions about Venezuela, there is almost complete disagreement about what Venezuela’s media landscape looks like. According to the opposition, Chavez already controls most of the broadcast media, either directly, though state ownership or sponsorship, or indirectly, via supposedly repressive media laws. According to Chavez supporters, though, the opposition controls 95% of all media.

The problem is, there are several different angles from which one can examine a media landscape, which is why one can reach quite different conclusions about what this landscape actually looks like. First, one could examine it solely from the perspective of who owns or controls different media outlets. Second, one can look at which types of media outlets reach the population. And, third, one can look at what people end up watching or listening to.

In the first case, of who owns the media outlets-an analysis Chavez supporters tend to use-it is quite clear that a vast majority of television stations, radio stations, and newspapers are privately owned. Here, indeed, Chavez supporters are correct when they say that 95% of all media outlets (TV, radio, and print) are privately owned and that a significant majority of these are more sympathetic with the opposition than with Chavez and his government. [2]

In the second type of analysis, which opposition sympathizers tend to prefer, we look at which types of stations have the most potential to reach Venezuelans. Here it is generally said that the two stations with the largest national reach are channel 2 (formerly RCTV now TVes) and channel 8 (the government controlled VTV). The private national stations Venevisión, Televen, and Globovisión have a far more limited range, since they are broadcast mainly in larger population centers.[3] Obviously, private local channels and community channels don’t reach beyond their locality, but community TV stations are beginning to rival private TV stations in number. Looked at this way, it would seem that in terms of television broadcasting the government has acquired the definitive upper hand, with RCTV going off the air, its replacement by TVes, the strength of the government station, and the two dozen or so community television channels that for the most part sympathize with the government.

This picture shifts significantly, though, if we examine what people actually watch. According to studies that examine the audience share of the different types of television channels, only about five TV stations, a handful of radio stations, and a few newspapers are viewed, listened to, or read by most Venezuelans. That is, in television, RCTV and Venevisión are watched by about 60% of the viewing audience (RCTV about 35-40% and Venevisión about 20-25%). The remaining 40% are shared among the government station VTV (about 15-20%), Televen (around 10%), Globovisión (around 10%), cable channels, and various local channels.[4]

Given the political positions and the relative audience shares of the different media outlets, we can divide Venezuela’s media landscape into three categories of opposition, neutral or balanced, and pro-government. Before RCTV’s demise it looked as follows:

Opposition: 50-55%

RCTV: 35-40%

Globovisión: 10%

Private local: 5%

Neutral or balanced: 30-40%

Venevisión: 20-25%

Televen: 10-15%

Pro-government: 20-25%

VTV: 15-20%

Other (Telesur, Vive, Community): 5%

Now, in the post-RCTV era there is indeed a significant shift, so that the media landscape could look as follows, if, as promised, TVes (RCTV’s replacement) does not become a pro-government channel, but is neutral.

Opposition: 15%

Globovisión: 10%

Private Local: 5%

Neutral/balanced: 30-40% or more

Venevisión: 20-25%

Televen: 10-15%

TVes: ??%

Pro-government: 20-25%

VTV: 15-20%

Other: 5%

In other words, the ratio of opposition-oriented to government-oriented television changed from about 50:25 (or 2:1) in favor of the opposition to 15:25 (or 1:1.7) in favor of the government in terms of audience share. In most countries in the world, where the media is not democratically controlled, any opposition would be overjoyed by having such a ratio. In Venezuela, of course, where the opposition is used to having ruled the country for four decades, such a disadvantage is an intolerable encroachment on their "freedom of speech."

However, there are three unknowns that could change the ratio in favor of the opposition. First, those who used to watch RCTV might very well watch more Globovisión, thus increasing their share of the audience. Second, Venevisión could very well become more oppositional, now that many opposition supporters are looking for a new home. There are already first indications that this will happen, according to a recent news report in the weekly newspaper Quinto Dia. [5] And third, many lovers of RCTV who want to continue watching it but did not have cable access, might, if they can afford it, switch to cable to watch RCTV. Thus, if Globovisión’s audience share increases, if Venevisión moves back into the oppositional column, and if RCTV continues to attract a large audience on cable, [6] then the opposition to pro-government balance in the Television media could easily swing to at last 1:1.

If you look at audience shares in the newspaper market or in radio, it is still far more favorable for the opposition than for the government. Many Chavez supporters say that the country’s largest newspaper, Últimas Noticias, is a Chavista newspaper, but if you look at the newspaper’s content and at its columnists, it is actually the most balanced newspaper in Venezuela, with government criticism and praise equally present. The second and third largest newspapers (El Universal and El Nacional), plus a good majority of smaller ones are all solidly in the opposition camp. The situation is even more lopsided among radio stations, where the pro-government share of radio audience (RNV, YVKE, and community radio) makes up a far smaller share than the opposition-oriented radio stations.

Thus, to argue that pluralism of views in Venezuela has been diminished by RCTV’s going off the air completely misses the reality of Venezuela’s media landscape. More than that, by defending the right of RCTV to broadcast, one is actually just defending the right of the country’s minority to continue its privileged place in the media landscape.


RCTV’s Rights and Responsibilities

Now that we have examined the arguments about whether RCTV’s going off the air represents a threat to media pluralism and thus to freedom of expression, we can turn to the other two arguments for and against RCTV: that RCTV deserves to lose its license due to its past actions and that it needs to make room for a new public Television Channel.

This is not the place to detail the numerous accusations against RCTV that the government has made, such as RCTV’s participation in the 2002 coup attempt, in the 2002-3 oil industry shutdown, and its violations of the country’s broadcasting regulations. [7] These facts are generally uncontested. Rather, what is contested is that these acts can justify the non-renewal of a broadcast license when another broadcaster, such as Venevisión, committed the same violations, but whose license was renewed on May 27th. In other words, on what legal grounds was RCTV’s license not renewed, but Venevisión’s license was, if they committed the same violations? According to RCTV, political discrimination is the only answer because RCTV’s hard-line opposition to the government continued, while Venevisión became neutral in Venezuela’s political conflict. [8]

To fend off this accusation of discrimination and that RCTV is being punished for crimes that have never been proven in court, the government argues that RCTV’s non-renewal is not a punishment at all. Rather, RCTV’s license expiration provides an excellent opportunity for the government to launch a public service television station, in compliance with a constitutional mandate. [9] At a later point Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacón explained that RCTV (and not Venevisión) was chosen for non-renewal because RCTV’s VHF channel 2 is better suited for public service TV because channel 2 has the better reception throughout the country.

In theory, though, it might still be possible for RCTV to reverse the license renewal once the full Supreme Court trial concludes with a decision in favor of RCTV, on the basis that either discrimination or that due process were violated. If this is the case, then the government might have to hold public hearings in which an objective analysis is made as to which of the three channels that are up for license renewal (RCTV, Venevisión, and VTV) needs to make room for TVes.

In any case, RCTV and the opposition have once again bungled the political situation. Instead of challenging Chavez in the political arena, they focused exclusively on legal challenges, international appeals, and confrontation. They could have organized a consultative (non-binding) referendum back in January, right after it was clear that Chavez would not renew RCTV’s license. Polls indicated that the up to 70% of Venezuelans did not want RCTV to go off the air. With only 10% of registered voters’ signatures the Electoral Council would have been forced to convoke a referendum on the issue. If the polls are accurate, the opposition would have won that referendum easily, thereby embarrassing Chavez and perhaps forcing him to renew RCTV’s license. Maybe this course of action did not occur to anyone in the opposition, but more likely is that they prefer to challenge Chavez in the legal and international arenas and on the streets than politically because actions that use Venezuela’s democratic processes would legitimate a political system that the opposition continuously decries as a dictatorship and whose ultimate goal it is to de-legitimate.


Diversification and Democratization of the Media?

While the legal challenge to the non-renewal of RCTV’s license could have some merit, particularly the charge that RCTV is being discriminated against vis-á-vis Venevisión, what about the government’s goal of diversifying and democratizing the country’s media landscape? Do the government’s media policies contribute to diversification and democratization of the media?

With regard to diversification and democratization, the Chavez government has arguably done more than any government in Venezuelan history or in the history of most countries of the world. Enabling hundreds of community radio stations and of dozens of community television stations gives ordinary citizens access to the media in an unprecedented manner. The opposition, of course, calls these community media outlets "Chavez controlled," but there is no evidence for this. Indeed, most of these media outlets (by no means all) are located in poor neighborhoods, where Chavez support is strong. However, criticism of national, state, and local governments is very common and these outlets provide a form of citizen accountability that can contribute to better governance.

Also, the creation of several new, certainly pro-government, Television outlets contributes to a diversification of the media landscape. Important in this regard is the launch of Vive TV, which focuses on communal issues and problems throughout the country, and of ANTV, the television channel of the National Assembly. ANTV allows Venezuelans (who receive cable) to observe the debates in the National Assembly, thus further enhancing democratic oversight over the country’s political processes.

Venezuela’s Law on Social Responsibility in Television and Radio has, despite opposition criticism, also contributed to the diversification of the media landscape, in that it mandates that five hours per day (between 5am and 11pm) be produced by independent national producers, with no single producer contributing more than 20% of this. [10] Thousands of independent producers have already registered with a national registry for their participation in this requirement.

Opposition critics say that the social responsibility law limits freedom of expression because it punishes the broadcasting of messages that are discriminatory, promote violence, promote the breaking of laws, or of "secret messages." [11] However, despite all of the anti-government broadcasting that has taken place since this law went into effect, no broadcaster has been called to task for violating these provisions. Also, most of these provisions are standard broadcast regulations in most countries in the world.

Finally, the government’s most recent measure of creating Venezuelan Social Television (TVes, pronounced "te ves" or "you see yourself") could indeed be a move towards democratizing and diversifying Venezuelan broadcast media, if the channel is truly independent of the government. So far, though, the board of directors has been named by the president and the channel’s funding comes from the central government. Even if the board does not receive any direction from the president, as long as it is named by the president, it cannot be considered independent. The government has promised, though, that this is merely a temporary arrangement and that later on the board and the financing of the channel will become truly independent. This issue notwithstanding, Venezuela’s independent television producers have applauded the new channel because it will broadcast almost entirely independent national productions–an important move that gives far more opportunity to Venezuelans to be heard on a national level than any other television channel provides.

Conclusion

While the decision not to renew RCTV’s license is still being challenged in court, [12] due to a possible violation of due process and equal treatment under the law, it is clear that the decision is legal to the extent that it is the prerogative of the state to decide which broadcasters are to receive licenses to use the airwaves, maintains pluralism in Venezuela’s media landscape, does not violate principles of freedom of speech for Venezuelans, and contributes to the democratization of the country’s airwaves by granting more Venezuelans access to these than before, via the new television channel TVes.

It is thus very disappointing to see international human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Carter Center, and the Committee to Protect Journalists condemn the government’s decision. These groups, just as Venezuela’s opposition, claim that the decision sends a chilling effect on freedom of speech. This supposed chilling effect, though, has been invoked over and over again by the government’s critics, but they have yet to point to a single instance of a story or a criticism that has not been aired due to this supposed effect. Globovisión continues to be as critical of the government as ever, just as the country’s most important newspapers and radio programs–arguably some of the most critical in the western hemisphere. RCTV, when it comes back via cable, will, no doubt, also continue to be as critical as ever. In effect, the groups that condemn Venezuela’s sovereign decision to change the way its airwaves are used are defending the right of corporate media to use the airwaves, to the detriment of the poor majority, who prior to Chavez have never had access to the country’s corporate-controlled media complex. Ideally, all broadcast frequencies should be under collective democratic and not private control. That, however, will take more time and will receive far more condemnation by the world’s establishment.

GREGORY WILPERT is a freelance writer and editor of Venezuelanalysis.com. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The Policies of the Chavez Presidency, Verso Books, September 2007

Appendix: Who Controls Which Channel and What they Show

Looking only at the channels that significant numbers of people watch, it makes sense to examine the political orientations of the most widely watched outlets. RCTV clearly is/was the most popular and also one of the most anti-Chavez TV stations. In the days leading up to and during the 2002 coup, the 2002-3 oil industry shutdown, and the August 2004 recall referendum RCTV had nearly constant anti-Chavez news coverage and advertisements. However, between these periods and following the recall referendum, RCTV focused on its core business, which is entertainment programming, both from Hollywood and from Venezuela (mostly game shows and soaps). Its explicitly political programming was limited to its nightly news programs and one morning political talk show (La Entrevista with Miguel Angel Rodriguez).

RCTV is clearly part of Venezuela’s old elite, owned by one of the country’s richest families, the Phelps family, which also owns soap and food production and construction companies. Eliado Lares, the president of RCTV, is related to Henry Ramos Allup, the Secretary General of the former governing party Acción Democrática (AD). Lares played an important role in ensuring that RCTV’s concession was renewed in 1987, when it almost lost its license during the presidency of Jaime Lusinchi, due to RCTV director Marcel Granier’s fights with Lusinchi. Granier himself came into directing RCTV and its parent company 1BC, due to his marriage with Dorothy Phelps, one of the heirs to the Phelps fortune. [13]

The second-most watched channel is Venevisión, which belongs to Gustavo Cisneros, the Cuban-Venezuelan media mogul, who is one of the world’s richest men and owns about 70 media outlets in 39 countries, including the Spanish-language network Univisión in the U.S. Also, he owns countless food distribution companies. There has always been a strong rivalry between Granier and Cisneros, since both are said to have presidential aspirations. Ironically, their two families are closely linked via marriage, because Cisneros is married to Patricia Phelps, the sister of Granier’s wife Dorothy.

Venevisión itself was just as, if not more, involved in the April 2002 coup attempt because it had exclusive interviews with coup plotters and actually filmed some of the key footage that was later used to falsely claim that Chavez supporters were shooting at unarmed opposition demonstrators. It was also actively involved in the oil industry shutdown, urging people to participate in a general strike via thousands of public service announcements, just as RCTV did.

However, this channel changed its tune in June 2004, two months before the August 15, 2004 recall referendum against Chavez, in which Chavez and Cisneros agreed to a media cease-fire between the two that was brokered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Officially, the two agreed to "honor constitutional processes and to support future conversations between the government of Venezuela and the media" [14] According to some reports, Cisneros had actually agreed to tone down his anti-Chavez propaganda in return for Chavez’s help with introducing Cisneros to Brazil’s President Lula. [15] Chavez, though, denied that any kind of pact had been made other than what was in the official statement. Still, Venevisión removed its political talk show "24" with Napoleon Bravo, one of the most strident anti-Chavistas on Television and its news programs became more balanced.

The next most important channel, in terms of reaching the population, is the government’s VTV station, which has been a state channel for most of Venezuela’s democratic history. Its programming is controlled quite directly by the executive, which names its director. As such, it is not a public broadcasting channel as in many European countries, which tend to be more independent of the government. Most of VTV’s programming is quite political, with many pro-government public service announcements and political talk shows in which government representatives or supporters predominate.

Televen, is one of the country’s newer channels, broadcasting since 1988. Unlike most of the other channels, it has always been slightly more neutral in Venezuela’s media wars, except that it once employed Marta Colomina for its morning talk show, one of the country’s most strident anti-Chavistas after Napoleon Bravo. Her program was taken off the air, though, following the 2004 recall referendum and the channel became far more balanced and now strives to invite as many government supporters as opponents for its political talk shows. Its economic interests are not as well defined as those of RCTV, Venevisión, and Globovisión because, unlike the other three, it is not affiliated with quite as large private economic interest groups.

Finally, there is Globovisión, which, as a 24-hour news and opinion channel has a political importance that far exceeds the size of its audience and its potential broadcasting reach. One of Venezuela’s newest channels, it was founded in 1994 by Alberto Federico Ravell (its director), Guillermo Zuloaga, and Nelson Mezerhane, who all belong to Venezuela’s upper crust, with Zuloaga coming from one of Venezuela’s richest families (who is also related to Ana corina Machado, one of the directors of the opposition NGO Súmate). While Globovisión’s UHF reach is limited, covering only three major cities, it does have cooperation agreements with numerous local private stations, so that it does reach most larger population centers over the airwaves. Politically, Globovisión is as opposition-oriented as a Television station could possibly be, broadcasting anti-government opinions and analysis 24 hours a day.

The other pro-government channels, such as most (but by no means all) community television stations, Vive, Telesur, and ANTV (National Assembly Television) all have extremely limited viewership according to the rating studies, so that these can be safely dismissed for the purposes of this analysis. The same goes for the opposition-oriented private local stations.

Notes

[1] Although, many progressives would argue that extreme right-wing views, which are racist or fascist, should not have access to the airwaves, even if a majority were to hold them. In many places it is actually illegal for such views to be broadcast under any circumstances. This is one of the reasons some say RCTV does not deserve a license.

2] More specifically, only three or TV channels broadcast via antenna out of over 200 are state owned (VTV, Vive, and Avila TV), only two out of 426 radio stations, and no daily newspapers. In each category, the privately owned outlets are overwhelmingly (perhaps around 80%) pro-opposition and anti-Chavez.

[3] Also, there are a few national specialty broadcasters, such as Vale TV, an educational channel, Meridiano, a sports channel, Puma, a music channel, and La Tele, an entertainment channel.

[4] Audience shares found in an El Nacional article of May 27, 2007. The percentages are given in ranges because different studies have slightly different results.

[5] "This happened with journalists and actors [of Venevisión]. They decided to complain about the editorial line of the Cisneros channel and got authorization to not just attend the demonstrations or to express their solidarity [with RCTV employees] in any other channel, but could now do it from their own screen." J.A. Almenar, "Exclusivas de última pagina," Quinto Día, June 1-8, 2007.

[6] Information on how many households receive cable or satellite TV is difficult to come by, but judging by the number of illegal cable connections that are said to exist and the number of DirecTV dishes (many with illegal decoders) in the barrios, it could be safe to guess that nearly half of Venezuelan households receive cable or satellite TV.

[7] For information on these acts of RCTV, see: Cartoon Coup D’Etat , Venezuela, RCTV, And Media Freedom: Just The Facts, Please , and the Libro Blanco (Spanish PDF) published by the Ministry of Communication and Information

8] The May 23rd decision of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, in which RCTV’s court injunction against the license non-renewal was rejected, but a trial about the issue was allowed, could leave a challenge open in this regard. The court merely states that RCTV failed to provide evidence for unequal treatment, but does not say that there was no unequal treatment. See: Supreme Tribunal of Justice Decision of May 23, 2007 (in Spanish) or Supreme Court Allows RCTV Case to Proceed, but Station Must Go off Air for a summary of the decision.

[9] See section IV, No. 2 of the May 23rd Supreme Court decision (in Spanish)

[10] Article 14, Ley de responsabilidad social en radio y televisión (Resorte)

[11] Article 28, No. 4 u-z, Ley Resorte

[12] The decision is being challenged not only in Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice, but will also be tried by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.

[13] See: http://www.aporrea.org/medios/a34490.html

[14] According to the Carter Center statement released after the meeting. http://www.aporrealos.org/actualidad/n17674.html

[15] See: "Venezuela’s Murdoch" by Richard Gott, New Left Review, May-June 2006