Venezuelan folk music, a Cuban documentary and heavy doses of government propaganda glorifying “21st century socialism” highlighted the first day of a new television channel that on Monday took over airspace of this nation’s oldest and most popular station, a frequent critic of leftist President Hugo Chavez.
At midnight Sunday, Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, went dark for the first time in 53 years after the Chavez government refused to renew its broadcast license, alleging violations of telecommunications law. That decision, announced in December, has been slammed by international press freedom groups, several governments and even some Chavez supporters.
Protests that began Sunday night around the national telecommunications regulatory commission’s office continued into the morning at several universities in the Caracas area. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators blocking a lane of a major freeway Monday.
Pro-government gatherings to applaud the takeover also were held around the city.
RCTV, a powerhouse news and prime-time programmer, was replaced on the airwaves by Televisora Venezolana Social, or TVes, after the Supreme Court over the weekend gave the new broadcaster the right to use RCTV’s towers and microwave transmitters.
In a final news conference before hundreds of tearful RCTV employees at the downtown studios Sunday night, station chief Marcel Granier said the denial of the license was part of an ongoing Chavez campaign to stifle opposition free speech. He also called the court decision “robbery.”
None of RCTV’s 3,000 employees was immediately laid off, as management scrambled to try to continue broadcasting over cable or satellite. But set designer Valentin Martiradonna said cuts were “inevitable. They can’t maintain all of us in our places for long.”
Said Virginia Vera, host of a morning call-in show that has a 60% viewer share: “Everyone is afraid.”
Government officials said the license was denied for alleged violations of laws governing violence and sex programming. Andres Izarra, a former RCTV producer who is now president of Telesur, one of the three government channels that Chavez has started, defended the switch in broadcasters, saying it was not a “takeover but a case of the expiration of a license.... This will lead to a pluralization of voices and a democratization of the news media.”
But most observers cite RCTV’s strident criticism of Chavez and his policies as the real reason for the license denial. Like Venezuela’s other major broadcasters, RCTV lent at least tacit support to a 2002 coup against the president by directing marchers and then failing to inform the public that the coup had failed. Whereas other major broadcasters reportedly reached understandings with the Chavez government to soften their criticisms, RCTV had remained critical since the failed coup.
“What government in the world would renew the license of a broadcaster implicated in a military coup?” said presidential advisor Alexander Main, noting that last week two other commercial stations’ licenses were renewed.
The closure brought censures from the U.S. Senate, the European Union, the Inter American Press Assn., and the governments of Chile and El Salvador.
Most Venezuelans oppose the yanking of RCTV’s license, according to a recent poll by Caracas research firm Datanalisis. However, Chavez’s overall approval rating remained high at 64%.
“This could be a mistake for Chavez because it breaks the appearance of democracy that Chavez has succeeded in having, especially with the Europeans,” said Datanalisis President Luis Vicente Leon.
Last-minute appeals over the air by RCTV workers that Chavez reconsider came to naught.
Some saw irony in Chavez’s decision, given that RCTV was viewed by some as sympathetic to Chavez’s own coup attempt in February 1992. Soon afterward, the station ran a popular soap opera called “In These Streets” that portrayed an honest judge trying to bring reform to a poor Caracas barrio. The soap got record ratings and stayed on the air for two years. Many credit it for helping turn public opinion to Chavez, who was elected president in 1998.
Soap opera writer Ibsen Martinez said in an interview that Chavez as president sought out his opinions and remained friendly, even naming him to a reconciliation panel after the 2002 coup. But, Martinez said, he resigned after Chavez turned the panel into a “platform for himself.” Martinez said he believed the president was trying to limit public opinion by creating “hegemony” in the news media.
“Chavez is typical of the Latin American left in that they see democracy and free institutions as a medium for taking power. But once they have it , they think democracy is just a formality, a trick of the bourgeoisie,” Martinez said.