Most consumers of the international media will be surprised to find that the controversy over Venezuela's oldest TV station, RCTV, is still raging. We were repeatedly informed that President Hugo Chavez shut down the station on May 27th. But in fact the station was never shut down – since there is no censorship in Venezuela. Rather, the Venezuelan government decided not to renew the broadcast license that granted RCTV a monopoly over a section of the publicly-owned frequencies.
This is a big distinction, although the U.S. and international press blurred it considerably. Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States, noted last month that the Venezuelan government is empowered to do what it did (non-renewal of the license) and cited Brazilian President Lula Da Silva's statement that not renewing RCTV's broadcast license was as democratic an act as granting it. Insulza added that democracy is very much in force in Venezuela.
These comments were not reported in the U.S. or other major media. Nor was Lula's original statement of the same argument. Nor was the statement of Lula's top foreign policy advisor, Marco Aurelio Garcia, who said there are few countries in the world with as much freedom of the press as in Venezuela.
RCTV has not laid off any of its 3000 employees, and may reach as much as half the population through its cable and satellite operations. But the station is now battling the government again, claiming that it should not be subject to government regulation – including the law, which pre-dates Chavez, that domestic stations carry the president's speeches -- because it is an international station. The government argues that RCTV is a domestic outlet because almost all of its production and audience are in Venezuela.
This month Venezuela's Supreme Court blocked the government from enforcing its order against RCTV on the grounds that the definition of national audiovisual producer was not clear enough.
RCTV's owner, Marcel Granier, is an opposition leader who seeks to de-legitimize the Venezuelan government. He has had some success in this effort, most importantly in April 2002 when his station faked film footage to make it look like pro-Chavez gunmen were shooting down demonstrators on the streets of Caracas. This and other manipulations by the Venezuelan media helped provoke a military coup against the elected government. This is one of several reasons that the government of Venezuela declined to renew RCTV's broadcast license.
Granier's most recent international organizing effort this year was also very successful. The international press glossed over RCTV's various attempts to help overthrow the government, reporting the dispute as an issue of press freedom, and seemed unaware that such a TV station would not get a broadcast license in the U.S. or any other democratic country.
Granier is betting that the international media and other U.S.-dominated institutions will also frame his current battle as a free speech issue, rather than a legal dispute over whether his station is a national channel and hence subject to the same regulations as other Venezuelan cable stations. This is a good bet.
But then there is the Venezuelan reality, which is what Chavez and his government really care about. While most Americans and Europeans can be swayed by their one-sided media, Venezuelans get to hear both sides of this story. Venezuelans can turn on their TV and see extremely harsh criticism of their government every day. They can turn on their radio and find the airwaves actually dominated by anti-government news broadcasting. They can walk to a newsstand and find that most of the biggest newspapers are also dominated by anti-government reporting.
So Venezuelans know that there is no free speech problem in their country. While there are problems with the rule of law, including street crime – as throughout most of the region – Venezuelans have not suffered a loss of civil liberties under the Chavez government, as we have for example in the United States since 2001. That is one reason why Hugo Chavez was re-elected in December by the largest margin of the 12 most recent Latin American presidential elections, despite facing an opposition-dominated media. Democracy is indeed very much in force in Venezuela.