Chávez is no enemy of free speech

Hugo Chávez let Radio Caracas Televisión continue to air for five years after the station supported a coup attempt.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's refusal to renew the license of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) might seem to justify fears that Mr. Chávez is crushing free speech and eliminating any voices critical of him. Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; the Committee to Protect Journalists; and members of the European Parliament, the US Senate, and even Chile's Congress have denounced the closure of RCTV, Venezuela's oldest private television network. Chávez's detractors got more ammunition last week when the president included another opposition network, Globovisión, among the "enemies of the homeland."

But the case of RCTV – like most things involving Chávez – has been caught up in a web of misinformation. While one side of the story is getting headlines around the world, the other is barely heard. The demise of RCTV is indeed a sad event in some ways for Venezuelans. Founded in 1953, it was an institution in the country, having produced the long-running political satire program "Radio Rochela" and the blisteringly realistic nighttime soap opera "Por Estas Calles." It was RCTV that broadcast the first live-from-satellite images in Venezuela when it showed Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969.

But after Chávez was elected president in 1998, RCTV shifted to another endeavor: ousting a democratically elected leader from office. Controlled by members of the country's fabulously wealthy oligarchy, including RCTV chief Marcel Granier, it saw Chávez and his "Bolivarian Revolution" on behalf of Venezuela's majority poor as a threat.

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RCTV's most infamous effort to topple Chávez came during the April 11, 2002, coup attempt against him. For two days before the putsch, RCTV preempted regular programming and ran wall-to-wall coverage of a general strike aimed at ousting Chávez. A stream of commentators spewed vitriolic attacks against him – while permitting no response from the government.

Then RCTV ran ads encouraging people to attend a march on April 11 aimed at toppling Chávez and broadcast blanket coverage of the event. When the march ended in violence, RCTV and Globovisión ran manipulated video blaming Chávez supporters for scores of deaths and injuries.

After military rebels overthrew Chávez and he disappeared from public view for two days, RCTV's biased coverage edged fully into sedition. Thousands of Chávez supporters took to the streets to demand his return, but none of that appeared on RCTV or other television stations. RCTV News Director Andrés Izarra later testified at National Assembly hearings on the coup attempt that he received an order from superiors at the station: "Zero pro-Chávez, nothing related to Chávez or his supporters…. The idea was to create a climate of transition and to start to promote the dawn of a new country." While the streets of Caracas burned with rage, RCTV ran cartoons, soap operas, and old movies. On April 13, 2002, Mr. Granier and other media moguls met in the Miraflores palace to pledge support to the country's coup-installed dictator, Pedro Carmona, who had eliminated the Supreme Court, the National Assembly, and the Constitution.

Would a network that aided and abetted a coup against the government be allowed to operate in the United States? The US government probably would have shut down RCTV within five minutes after a failed coup attempt – and thrown its owners in jail. Chávez's government allowed it to continue operating for five years and then declined to renew its 20-year license to use the public airwaves. It can still broadcast on cable or via satellite dish.

Granier and others should not be seen as free-speech martyrs. Radio, TV, and newspapers remain uncensored and unthreatened by the government. Most Venezuelan media are still controlled by the old oligarchy and are staunchly anti-Chávez. If Granier had not decided to try to oust the country's president, Venezuelans might still be able to look forward to more broadcasts of "Radio Rochela."

Bart Jones spent eight years in Venezuela, mainly as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and is the author of the forthcoming book "Hugo! The Hugo Chávez Story, From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution." ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.l

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