Free Speech and RCTV in Venezuela

There is a heated and complicated debate going on right now over the decision by the Chávez-led government of Venezuela not to renew the television concession which for years has pertained to Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV). The issue has captured international attention, but has not been dignified by accurate reporting in the dominant international media.

The accusations of "restrictions on the freedom of speech", which appear frequently in the international media, are not only inaccurate, but also simply frightening. Frankly, the discrepancy between what is reported internationally and what is happening on the ground raises concern that even respected groups like Human Rights Watch, the BBC World News, and CNN are out of touch with the real struggles of social movements in the Global South.

In Venezuela, as in most democracies, the right to broadcast TV and radio are public commons, which belong in the hands of the public in some way. Since representative democracy is such a predominant political model at this point in history, democratically elected governments like the one in Venezuela are supposed to control the public communications commons. The government gives concessions to private parties to use these commons responsibly, and the government has the right to take them away in the public interest at any time.

The decision not to renew the concession to RCTV was made after a thorough investigation of their journalistic ethics including accuracy, objectivity, and their compliance with the Law on Responsibility in Television and Radio (which was denounced by Human Rights Watch for being a restriction of free speech).

Since 1999 RCTV has spread blatant lies and outlandish manipulations of information directly attacking Chávez. It has broadcasted sexually explicit and other inappropriate material in such violation of the law (652 cases) that any honest assessment leads to the conclusion that their journalism is an attack on public health and decency. Fox News is a kitten compared to RCTV.

Beyond this, RCTV were leaders in the 2-day coup in April 2002. This coup was not only one that used the military, but also the media. During the coup, RCTV cancelled their usual programs and broadcast a two-day string of black and white fuzziness, Hollywood movies, cartoons, and infomercials. This is widely confirmed by Venezuelans. When RCTV finally covered the coup, they reported that Chávez had signed his resignation and peacefully left his post as president after his supporters had opened fire on an innocent opposition march. The images RCTV broadcasted of the violence among the marchers were later proved to have been secretively arranged so to block from view the reality; pro-Chávez marchers were firing in self-defense after having been attacked by hidden gunmen. Meanwhile, their president had been violently kidnapped. RCTV`s action were part of a blatant and well-coordinated attempt by the major media to assist the coup leaders by blinding the public to what was actually happening.

Luckily, there is an extensive system of alternative media in Latin America which spread the message of the truth, and the Venezuelan people stormed Caracas and put their president back in power, along with the majority of the National Guard which did not support the senior officers who had planned the coup. The reporting was in fact much worse than Fox News reporting that Florida went to Bush in the 2000 Presidential election and covering up all the manipulations of the voter roles.

RCTV is well-known not only for constant dishonest anti-Chavez propaganda and a complete lack of dignified analysis, but for massive amounts of advertising for sex hotlines, pornographic programs back to back between 1 and 5am, and other behavior that was considered to be irresponsible and in violation of laws protecting children.

There remain approximately three other major stations which are entirely opposition-run and very similar to RCTV in their programming. Over the years since the coup, the Chávez administration has negotiated with these stations behind the scenes. The stations have agreed to curb a lot of their ridiculous anti-Chávez propaganda and sexually explicit programming, so as not to have their concession closed. RCTV was absolutely uncompromising, and subsequently, it lost its concession.

Arguments suggesting that Chávez is arbitrarily censoring those who criticize him are weakened by the fact that the opposition's message (that there is no freedom of speech in Venezuela) is pounded through the most prominent radio waves, the biggest TV stations, and through all major press every day of the week, even after Chávez´s management of media concessions.

Many Venezuelans who support Chávez criticize Chávez for negotiating with the TV stations which participated in the coup (and have awful programming). Many believe those stations should have been shut down - without compromise.

Many of my Venezuelan friends reveal that they are not immune to the media's campaigns; they were raised to instinctively believe much of what the news reports. So when they read news reports about the lack of freedom of speech in Venezuela, they express a mix of feelings - mainly confusion and anger. They almost feel silly trying to engage in a discussion about it. Because the obvious reality in front of them is that in Venezuela there is freedom of speech, especially since RCTV´s closing and the opening of media outlets such as Telesur, which broadcast other perspectives.

RCTV has now campaigned to get the OAS, the USA and other international bodies on their side in an effort to paint the Chávez government as dictatorial and use political pressure to get their concession renewed. But the law and justice are not on RCTV´s side, especially since the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, the supreme court of Venezuela, ruled strongly in favor of the constitutionality of the non-renewal of the concession last week.

It is important to note that the channel that received the concession in RCTV's place is a concrete step toward public television in Venezuela. "Venezuelan Social Television" (TVES) is controlled by a foundation independent of the government, with a government appointee on its board of directors. Further, it will broadcast mostly programs produced by independent parties, and will focus on quality, educational television. No "reality shows", just reality. The channel is nascent, which means that in reality it could become distinct from its original vision. Nonetheless, in these initial stages it suggests a brighter journalistic future for Venezuela. You can read about it in the transcript of an interview with the director of public policy of the ministry of communication and information, Luisana Colomine, at

Thorough interrogation of questions of democracy in Venezuela is extremely important, particularly in the realm of petroleum politics. Some social movements argue that PDVSA is teaming up with transnational corporations from the USA to cover up the devastating human and environmental effects of oil exploitation. It is possible that there is simply no democracy in the oil business anywhere in the world. Why might it be that this is not denounced by Bush and the international media?

The non-renewal of RCTV´s concession has been one of the more positively democratic acts of the Chávez government since Chávez´s re-election. Living in Venezuela, seeing things from this perspective, when I hear the accusations of violations of freedom of speech, I am absolutely flabbergasted. I feel a disturbing sensation of powerlessness and alienation from the international media. These issues raise questions as to who really controls international communication, and whether we think it is OK for a corporation like Disney to own the History Channel. These questions are beyond the scope of this article, but are extremely important and directly related to this issue.

James Suggett collaborates with both government and civil society organizations in Mérida, Venezuela, including the Misión Sucre, Misión Vuelvan Caras, the Autonomous Culture Institute, feminist organizations such as the Luna Nueva Collective, and an array of cooperativist development initiatives.

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