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Not About Free Speech

by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER

Caracas.

No single news item emerging from Venezuela has made foreigners, and especially North Americans, more queasy than the recent decision by the Chávez government not to renew the broadcasting concession previously granted to Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). Perhaps with some justification, many have a severe allergy to anything that smells of an attack on “free speech.” Such hyper-sensitivity, however, obscures a crucial detail of the matter: the non-renewal of RCTV’s concession is simply not about free speech.

The claims of the opposition and the foreign press, which assert a veritable “trampling” of human rights and press freedom, rest on a series of faulty claims:

1.) The Venezuelan government is behaving abnormally.

Central to the opposition’s framing of the issue is the broad background of a slide toward authoritarianism and fascism. According to many, Venezuela has stepped decidedly outside the democratic norms governing behavior in the post-Cold War world, and the non-renewal of RCTV’s concession is proof of this ab-normality.

This, however, could not be further from the case. The Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 does boast the most stringent requirements imposed by any constitution on the private media, enforcing above all a broad notion of “responsibility” on the latter. Media magnates have expressed a clear concern over this provision, and with good reason, since they had been operating irresponsibly for quite some time.

Were this constitutional provision fully enforced and legislated, the private media might be able to claim that their existence is somehow more difficult than other media outlets the world over. But as it stands, legal requirements and enforcement are hardly out of the ordinary. The Ley Resorte, or media responsibility law, has as its objective the “social responsibility of radio and television service providers,” and has been credited with both protecting the rights of children and increasing the amount of domestically-produced programming.

However, the idea that media concessions entail responsibility is not at all unique. Even the U.S. FCC maintains a similar position, notwithstanding the swift de-regulation during the early years of the Reagan administration. As we all know, the FCC maintains certain content restrictions on broadcasting (more strict, it should be mentioned, than in many European nations), and is not unwilling to silence those who infringe upon these restrictions. Moreover, ever since the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” the enforcement of such restrictions has been ratcheted up (as in, e.g., FCC efforts to shut down infamous radio host Howard Stern, not to mention the continuous closure of smaller outfits).

And we are only speaking here of so-called “obscenity,” which doesn’t even compare to the charges against RCTV, which as is well-known, actively participated in a conspiracy which brought about several deaths and used those deaths to provoke a coup in April of 2002. This was followed by an equally active participation in the oil sabotage of December of the same year, which crippled the Venezuelan economy toward the same end.

While this provides little justification, it is worth mentioning how many FBI visits have been occasioned by “threats” against George W. Bush, despite the fact that these have been isolated and individual incidents, not the sort of organized rebellion and premeditated murder endorsed by the Venezuelan media.

2.) “Human rights” are being violated.

In his first significant intervention since being named vice president, Jorge Rodriguez spoke on the subject of RCTV at the swearing-in of Chávez’s new ministerial train. He began from the dictionary definition of “concession”: “the juridical means by which the administration cedes to a person the privative use of something in the public domain, or the management of a public service, for a determinate period of time and under certain conditions.” Rodríguez added that “this is not Hugo Chávez saying this, this is in the dictionary.”

And yet opposition media outlets attempt to paint the issue of the non-renewal of a concession as the violation of a human right. This “right” presumably means the right of a large private media conglomerate to have unrestricted access to a public good, to use and abuse this public good for profit without acquiring any responsibility. When RCTV head Marcel Granier wants to tug on liberal heartstrings, he adds in the claim that the human rights of the workers are being violated.

Yes, you heard right, RCTV (a division of business group 1BC) is concerned above all with their workers’ rights. The government has been quick to point out in response that the concession is not being denied to the workers, and has actively encouraged RCTV workers to organize into a collective and request that the concession be granted to themselves.

3.) The government is “closing” a media outlet.

Many, moreover, have claimed that the government is unilaterally “closing” a media outlet, and that to do so represents a sort of quantitative attack on free speech. The fewer media outlets there are, so the argument goes, the less free the press.

As dubious as such arguments are in and of themselves, it should be clear that they don’t even apply to the situation in question. Channel 2 is not being closed; broadcasts will continue. The concession to one private corporation is not being renewed, and will instead be granted to either another private corporation, a mixed public-private corporation, a collective of workers, or some other combination.

In his speech, Rodriguez was clear on this point: “Is the Bolivarian government closing down a television station? Is it violating the freedom of expression? No, it’s not even revoking a concession The only television station that was closed during the eight years of this government was Venezolana de Televisión on that tragic night of April 11th.”

Despite the current rhetoric, the media magnates running RCTV as well as other opposition outlets like Venevisión and Globovisión demonstrated little concern for “free speech” when they supported this short-lived coup d’etat which immediately closed down the only media outlet representing the poorest majority of the population (as well as various community media outlets like Catia-TV).

Indeed, the very fact that RCTV will be free to continue cable and satellite broadcasts demonstrates that what is at issue is the privative use of a public good (see #2 above) rather than the “silencing” of a media outlet.

4.) The gesture is “anti-democratic.”

The claim that the non-renewal of RCTV’s concession violates democratic norms is very much tied into those claims mentioned above, as it similarly invokes an indisputable “right” that private corporations have to a public good.

Speaking on Vive TV, influential Venezuelan intellectual Luis Britto García recently made clear that this is indeed a question of democracy, but one which runs contrary to the claims of the opposition media. The non-renewal of RCTV’s concession is a step toward the democratization of the airwaves. What socialism could we be constructing, asked Britto, and especially what sort of democratic socialism, if access to the airwaves remained in the hands of a small oligopoly of magnates with international backers?

What could be more democratic than handing Channel 2 over to the 63 percent of Venezuelans who voted for Chávez? What could be more democratic than allowing RCTV workers to organize their own station? And what could be more democratic than allowing access to the airwaves for those traditionally excluded by the media oligarchy?

And, it should be mentioned, if we are speaking of “democracy,” RCTV head Marcel Granier has little to say. After all, he and other media leaders actively participated in an anti-democratic and oligarchic coup against a repeatedly-confirmed democratic leader in April of 2002 (for an overview of the role of the media in the coup, see the film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised).

5.) In short, this is an issue of “free speech.”

In a recent statement, the head of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, criticized the Venezuelan government for undermining “the pluralism of the media.” Despite recognizing that this is an issue of domestic juridical competencies, Insulza nevertheless felt comfortable arguing that the move “seems to be a form of censorship against the freedom of expression.”

Hugo Chávez replied in trademark style: “Insulza is an idiot, from the ‘i’ to the ‘t’.” The Venezuelan government has interpreted the OAS chief’s words as an intervention into what is a sovereign issue, and has called for his resignation (we should bear in mind that Venezuela was among those nations who fought the hard battle to get Insulza confirmed for the position in the first place).

If there remained any doubt about the issue, about whether the non-renewal of RCTV’s concession constitutes an attack on free speech, one need only follow the logic of such an argument. In a session of the National Assembly devoted to discussing Insulza’s comments, an MVR deputy did just that, pointing out that the OAS head would have Venezuela restore other similar “concessions,” specifically those traditionally granted to the multinational oil companies who had looted Venezuela for decades.

There is no qualitative difference between the two sort of concession: both have been traditionally and undemocratically granted to large corporations which have been given free rein to reap unlimited profits from what is undeniably a public good. No, this is not a question of “free speech,” but rather in the words of Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, it’s about “revoking the disgusting privileges of a communications oligarchy allied with international financiers.”

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He lives in Caracas, and can be reached at gjcm (at) berkeley.edu.

 

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George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.

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