Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Remote Control

January 24, 2007; Page A12

CARACAS -- The president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, has verbally announced his decision to shut down Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) -- our TV station, the oldest in Venezuela as well as the one with the largest audience.

So continues a long series of attacks against journalists, employees, management and shareholders of many independent media companies. The aim of all this is to limit the citizens' right to seek information and entertainment in the media of their choice, to impede public access to those media where they might express or encounter criticism of the government or their proposals for reform, to stifle the pluralism of opinion in news and talk programs, and to cut off the free flow of information and debate in Venezuela. Instead, the Chávez government seeks to install a system that it has described, without apparent irony, as the "communicational and informative hegemony of the state."

On June 14, 2006, President Chávez -- dressed in military fatigues -- gave a speech on the occasion of the delivery of a batch of Kalashnikov AK-103s to an army battalion. He brandished a weapon, then pointed it at a cameraman and said: "With this rifle, which has a range of 1,000 meters, I could take out that wee red light on your camera." Moments later, he declared: "We have to review the licenses of the TV companies."

In the weeks that followed the incident, various government officials repeated the same threat and started to monitor the editorial positions of the media. "There have been qualitative changes in programming, in news selection, and in the editorial line" of some media, an official observed; "[but] there are other cases in which we have not seen this change, this rectification . . ." He reminded us all that the government "has the ability not to renew a [media] license."

On Nov. 3, 2006, a month before the Venezuelan presidential elections, President Chávez repeated his threat: "I'm reminding certain media, above all in television, that they mustn't be surprised if I say, 'There are no more licenses for certain TV channels.' . . . I'm the head of state."

On Dec. 28, 2006, President Chávez, again in military uniform, declared that the broadcasting license for RCTV would not be renewed: "The order has already been drafted, so they should start shutting down their studios." He provided detail: "the license ends in March"; but two weeks later, in the National Assembly, he contradicted himself, saying that our license would end in May. At that same time, he launched a campaign of attack ads in all state-run media, paid for with public funds, aimed at discrediting our station in the eyes of the country.

On Jan. 13, in his annual address to the National Assembly, he changed his tune again and said: "The transmission signal belongs to the Venezuelan people and will be nationalized for all Venezuelans." He added: "RCTV has only a few days left . . . they can scream, stomp their feet, do whatever they want, but the license is finished. They can say whatever they want, I don't care, it's over."

These verbal threats constitute, de facto, a public decision to silence RCTV. But RCTV has never been informed legally or formally of the measures that are to be taken against it; nor have we ever been told what exactly are the accusations against us, which makes it difficult for us to defend ourselves. President Chávez has violated the presumption of innocence and has denied us due process.

The actions against RCTV of President Chávez and his subordinates are in violation of the Venezuelan constitution, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter. They are a clear example of abuse of power, and violate the right to work of all those in the media industry, not to mention a violation of the freedom of thought and expression of millions of citizens who seek information and ideas of their own free choice.

We are faced, in effect, with an aggressive campaign to extinguish all thought that differs from that which is officially dubbed "revolutionary."

In fact, President Chávez's threat to shut down RCTV has even led Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, to express his dismay publicly: "The shut-down of a large media company is a very rare occurrence in the history of our continent, and has no precedent in the last decades of democracy."

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, have also raised the alarm. But the reaction of Hugo Chávez has been typically crude. It's the way he reacts whenever faced with someone who has the temerity to disagree with him. He says, and has said repeatedly, that there's nothing to discuss. "RCTV has only a few days left. They can scream, stomp their feet, do whatever they want. But it's all over."

Mr. Granier is chairman of Radio Caracas Television. (This piece was translated from the original Spanish by Tunku Varadarajan.)

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