The Return of Venezuela's RCTV

by Rick Rockwell

The leading Venezuelan opposition television channel returned to viewers without an internet connection this week. And that is proving to be a moral victory for both sides in that divided nation.

To those who haven’t tuned into this dispute, which has gripped Latin America, the Venezuelan government pulled the plug on RCTV on May 27. Up to that point, RCTV was the oldest television network in the country, and the leading voice against President Hugo Chavez.

Since that time, RCTV kept up an opposition presence by webcasting via YouTube and its own websites. Of course, its audience was diminished. Instead of millions of viewers, on YouTube, the once powerful network could only attract thousands. (RCTV produced more than 500 videos for YouTube and the most popular attracted more than 113,000 views.) Likely, these videos were intended mostly for Venezuelan expatriates or leaders of the various opposition movements, because only 13 percent of Venezuelans have regular access to the internet.

But on July 16, the network returned to Venezuela on a limited basis via cable and satellite. Of course, only about 30 percent of Venezuelans are hooked to cable. Most can’t afford it in a country where most people earn just $2 a day.

Nevertheless this was a victory for RCTV to show the Venezuelan state had not crushed the television outlet.

And it was a victory for the Chavez government too. The government had noted that RCTV was free to open as a cable concern and the return of the network proves the government’s point. Invariably, government representatives ask: if Venezuela is a dictatorship, would an opposition network be allowed to return?

The question remains though whether RCTV was given due process. Many free speech advocates, this author included, have noted that the network’s legal appeals should have been heard by Venezuela’s Supreme Court and by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights before its frequency was taken away.

However, some who use the due process and legal arguments against Chavez go too far. For instance, last week at a forum at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. about free expression in Latin America, the RCTV case dominated the discussion. Some even challenged if RCTV and other Venezuelan networks had aided the 2002 coup, which removed Chavez briefly. This is a common tactic of the Venezuelan opposition to now question facts from 2002 as if they are part of the Chavez propaganda machine. Their argument: until recently there were no legal proceedings against RCTV stemming from 2002 and some of the reasons the government gave for taking RCTV’s license were not documented prior to 2007. So, if there is no legal trail, the argument goes, perhaps these charges are false.

Whatever the law in Venezuela, broadcasters who use the public airwaves have not just a legal obligation to the state, but also a moral obligation to the populace to serve the public interest. Anyone who has seen videotape (check this link for a documentary with English subtitles) of the Venezuelan commercial networks from 2002 will see how those networks manipulated camera angles and information to aid the coup and some reporters even bragged on the air about how they had colluded with coup leaders. Arguably, this not only violated a compact with the state to fairly use broadcasting concessions, but this also showed broadcasters were representing the interests of the oligarchy, not the public which brought Chavez back to power.

Yes, the broadcasters were never convicted. Venezuela’s Supreme Court freed the military leaders who led the coup (another argument against the idea that Chavez is a dictator). Some connected to the coup were prosecuted successfully, but for the most part the Venezuelan legal system has been fairly lenient with those who briefly overthrew Chavez.

John Dinges, who was one of the speakers on that panel last week* has even interviewed journalists who had second thoughts about their roles in the coup. But he was too kind to bring that up to those who are using the legal arguments on RCTV’s behalf.

RCTV deserves a fair hearing in both the international and Venezuelan systems. But that doesn’t mean that once it gets that hearing that it will be able to prove it deserves its broadcast concession again. No one has proved before a court that RCTV aided a coup, but anyone with eyes can witness for themselves the propaganda and manipulation the network broadcast. That ethical breach alone is enough to seal the case.

*The author of this piece was also one of the panelists.

For more background on this story, please see these previous entries:

(The RCTV logo is from one of RCTV's websites. To see a clip from "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" a documentary produced for the BBC about media manipulation during the 2002 coup, please check below.)

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