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Rising censorship among world's oil powers

Venezuela's move to shut down a major TV station parallels recent crackdowns in Iran and Russia.

By Staff writer / May 24, 2007

Mexico City

More than two-thirds of the Venezuelan population approve of President Hugo Chávez as a visionary leader for Latin America's poor.

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But on Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a different portrait emerges. In the daily morning show "The Interview," the Venezuelan leader is ridiculed as "that guy" who should be "thrown out" before he becomes a dictator.

Now, after more than 50 years on the air, Mr. Chávez is pulling the plug on RCTV. The government won't renew its broadcast license, which expires Sunday.

To Chávez supporters, closing the station rids the nation of a source of lies and political manipulation. But the move is also generating massive street protests and worldwide claims of censorship. For Chávez critics, it represents a move toward authoritarianism they say is playing out across the globe. Democratically elected leaders – particularly "petroleum populists" in Venezuela, Russia, and Iran – attack dissent by targeting independent media and civil society groups, say analysts.

The crackdowns are spurred by fears of Western governments or outside groups meddling in domestic politics or undermining security. They span countries rich and poor. But several years of high oil prices are particularly emboldening the leaders in some countries.

"Venezuela, Iran, and Russia are part of a syndrome in which oil-rich countries that already have a tendency toward authoritarianism are suddenly enjoying a new kind of political self-confidence," says Thomas Carothers, vice president of international politics and governance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They are suddenly sitting pretty, able to buy off opponents – gain the popularity of the public by giving out money. The concentration of oil wealth is increasing their concentration of political power ... and whatever repressive instincts they have are magnified as they strike against independent voices."

In Venezuela, RCTV is the country's oldest privately run television station, founded in 1953. Today it is not the only opposition voice, but it is one of the most widely broadcast. Chávez accuses RCTV of supporting a failed 2002 coup against him. The station ran cartoons instead of airing images of supporters marching for his return. A 1987 decree, the Chávez government maintains, gives the government the right to let the license lapse.

"The radio-electric spectrum is property of the nation; it is not an unlimited entity," says Luis Britto Garcia, a pro-government political analyst in Caracas. "[The station] broke the laws of the concession; they cut the signal during a speech by the president during the coup, they broadcast programming 24 hours a day calling on the people to overthrow the government...."

Russia: A Top 10 'free-speech backslider'

Instances of media crackdowns are spurred by local contexts but are part of a growing repression of various forms of public dissent, including nongovernmental organizations. In Russia last week, local authorities took steps they apparently believed would limit the public relations damage to an EU-Russia summit in Samara: police arrested organizers of a protest by the opposition "Other Russia" movement as well as journalists who had been trying to interview them. They also raided the Samara offices of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, seizing computers and blocking publication of the paper's Monday edition. While those arrested were quickly released, it was a reminder of wider official crackdowns on Russia's few remaining independent journalistic voices.

But likely to get more attention here at Monday's World Congress of Journalists is the announced eviction of Russia's 100,000-member journalists' union from its offices to make way for the state-funded RIA-Novosti's English cable news network, Russia Today.

"Today the electronic media is mostly in the hands of the state. From the pluralism of the 1990s, we have arrived at near-complete uniformity," says Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, an independent NGO. "The only thing demanded of journalists is loyalty to the authorities. The zone of criticism has become so narrow that the population is no longer in a position to understand what's going on in the country."