After gaining full control of Venezuela’s oil industry, President Hugo Chavez has seized perhaps an even more valuable resource: public flow of information.
This past Monday, protests emerged on the streets of Caracus in response to Chavez pulling the plug on the 53-year-old Radio Caracus Television (RCTV), Venezuela’s oldest and most watched TV station. Police used water cannons and tear gas to break up the pre-midnight closure crowd composed of thousands of angry citizens.
The station, to Chavez, was a cheerleader for everything he stands against: capitalism, neoliberalism, and the failed 2002 coup.
But to the many RCTV employees who chanted “Freedom” during their last few hours on camara, and the picketing protesters, the station represented the last traces of unadulterated thought and expression in an increasingly authoritarian regime.
The station’s closing will affect “more than 200 journalists, 3,000 workers and the entire Venezuelan society,” according to a statement on RCTV’s website.
Just minutes after the shutdown, TVES, the new public channel, launched with pro-Chavez music and government ads proclaiming — as though part of a Brave New World-esque distopia — that “Now Venezuela belongs to everyone.”
Who is ‘everyone’, though, if no one has a truly free voice?
The media is just one tool that Chavez has used to express — or favorably manipulate — his views. He has rewritten the constitution, stacked the courts in his favor and thrown political opponents in jail.
Many may rightly claim that RCTV was due to expire, but should it have solely been up to Chavez to decide whether or not the popular channel was renewed? According to a law enacted in Venezuela in 1987, the licences for public airwave use provided to RCTV expired on May 27 of this year. However, if Venezuela really operates under democratic principals, as Chavez claims, shouldn’t it be up to the citizens, the courts and, as shocking as it may sound, the station itself to decide if their licence gets renewed?
RCTV seems to be one check off the list of a media-shutdown, opposition-silencing campaign. The day after taking RCTV of the air, Chavez announced that Globovision, the last remaining private oppositional TV station, is “an enemy of the state.”
It’s no wonder that Venezuela has been recognized for its declining media freedom.
Reporters without Borders’ 2006 Freedom of Press Index, which ranks the level of uncensored expression in 180 countries, factored Venezuela at number 90 on the list. This makes it the lowest scoring South American country other than Peru, which ranked at number 116.
A Freedom House Report released this May, citing the imminent shutdown of RCTV, deemed the freedom of press in Venezuela to be “appalling.“
Chavez, despite his authoritarian iron fist, has no doubt done good deeds the media should cover, such as donating millions of dollars to social welfare programs and education.
But if Chavez is as strong a leader as his government-controlled talk shows boast of him to be, surely he can handle media critism. Then, whether or not citizens decide to support him, they will have the proper information to decide for themselves.