RCTV banned again

Back in May, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) was forced to cease broadcasting after the government refused to renew its broadcast licence. The station reinvented itself as RCTV Internacional, broadcasting by cable and satellite.

Now, IFEX (via) reports, a spurious, last-minute legal pretext was used to force the channel suspend broadcasting for the second time. The grounds cited by the government were that the privately-owned station was not a national audiovisual producer.

This time, the censorship of RCTV is complete, the press freedom organisation said. The Venezuelan government wanted the station to disappear, in Venezuela, at least. First it excluded RCTV from the terrestrial broadcast frequencies. Now it is preventing it from broadcasting by cable and satellite. This second phase of the RCTV affair raises several questions.

Firstly, if the Radio and TV Social Responsibility Law of 2004 and the regulations of the National Commission for Telecommunications (Conatel) really do require cable and satellite stations - even internationally-structured ones such as RCTV Internacional - to be registered as national audiovisual producers, as is the case for terrestrial broadcasters, why was this requirement not previously enforced with all the others?

Secondly, why did the Venezuelan Chamber of Subscription Television remember that the 45 other pay-TV channels should also have to register as national audiovisual producers only after it had already given RCTV Internacional five days to do so? And why were the others given 10 days?

Thirdly, why did the communication and information minister wait until RCTV Internacional resumed cable broadcasting on 16 July to announce that the cable and satellite stations would now also have to submit to the system of cadenas, in which national broadcasters are required to simultaneously retransmit the presidents speeches and other government messages when they are broadcast by the state media?

Finally, why did the telecommunications minister not respond to the request for a deadline extension for RCTV Internacional that was made on 30 July by Mario Seíjas, the president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Subscription Television?

Coincidentally, the Supreme Court has just rejected RCTV Internacionals final appeals against the governments refusal to renew its terrestrial broadcasting licence. Two months after the appeals were filed, the court ruled that they were inadmissible because the station had failed to comply with certain administrative obligations.

Venezuelans demonstrate for free media

Thousands of people have demonstrated in Caracas as Radio Caracas TV (RCTV) - Venezuelas oldest TV network and the only opposition broadcaster with national reach - went off air after President Hugo Chavez did not renew its licence.

Within seconds of screens going blank, the insignia of a new state-sponsored broadcaster, TVES, appeared. According to the president, this new channel will better reflect the socialist revolution he has pledged to lead.

Closing down the critics

At midnight on May 27th, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) will be cease broadcasting because the government is refusing to renew its broadcast licence.

Critics of the move point to the free speech implications of closing down a consistent opponent of President Hugo Chávez, while supporters say that the government is right to replace a channel notorious for anti-Chávez propaganda.

For 53 years, RCTV has been part of Venezuelas cultural landscape, winning more than 40% audience share with comedies, soap operas and game shows such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In an opinion poll last month 70% opposed the closure, although most were more concerned with the loss of their favourite soaps than with the erosion of freedom of speech.

RCTV and three other stations supported the military coup that briefly ousted Chávez in 2002 and, after he returned to power, RCTV has remained hostile with news bulletins focussing on crime, economic woes and Chávezs increasing power.

In contrast to RCTVs grim news agenda - which some staff admit is lopsided - state channels go to the other extreme and show scenes of happy peasants, singing children and a nation grateful for subsidised food and free medical care. On occasion government officials are criticised but never the president.

Many ordinary Venezuelans such as Marisol Torres, 55, a Chávez supporter who lives in a slum, feel uneasy about the decision and wonder if it marks a political watershed. Its better to have more voices, she said. Her more immediate concern was the prospect of losing shows such as La Rochella, similar to Candid Camera, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Its the best stuff on the box. Now what am I going to watch?

RCTVs 2,500 staff have been told to continue turning up for work after May 27 in the hope that some programmes will still be made if they can be sold to other networks, and that RCTV may be able to limp on as a cable channel. But with vastly reduced audience share and advertising revenue the stations prospects are not good.

Moirah Sanchez, a lawyer who is leading the companys last-ditch attempt at the supreme court to overturn the governments decision, claims that with RCTV gone the government would achieve its stated aim of information hegemony.

Closing down critics

The Telegraph (via) reports that Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, is to close the countrys oldest television channel for being critical of his regime.

Chavez said he would not be renewing the licence of Radio Television Caracas (RCTV), founded in 1953, which has long allied itself with opposition forces: It is best that they start packing their bags and working out what to do after March, as there will be no new licence for the coup-mongering channel called Radio Caracas Television, the president said during a speech to the armed forces.

He went on to claim the channel was at the service of coups against the people, against the nation, against national independence, against the dignity of the republic.

RCTV is among several private Venezuelan media organisations that supported a bungled coup in 2002 and a devastating general strike in 2003 that failed to unseat the president.

Mr Chavez, who was re-elected by a landslide earlier this month, has promised to usher in Socialism of the 21st Century and has warned repeatedly that the government would deny broadcast licenses to channels accused of conspiring against him.

According to Marcel Granier, the head of RCTV, the channel does not need to renew its licence. He also vowed to fight against the presidents plans in Venezuelas courts and on the international stage. If Mr Chavez was serious, I think hes badly informed, Mr Granier said.

Indirect censorship in Venezuela

The Melon Farmers report that the critically acclaimed film, Secuestro Express, about violent street crime in Caracas, has become a box office smash in Venezuela while sparking a raging political controversy that could get it yanked from theaters and possibly land its director in jail.

Since its summer release in Caracas, the Miramax-distributed movie - which has been denounced as miserable by Venezuela’s vice president - has generated two lawsuits, including one that calls for pulling it from circulation to delete a specific scene culled from news footage during a public rebellion against the Chávez regime.

A second lawsuit accuses director Jonathan Jakubowicz of fomenting illegal drug use and vilifying the nation’s armed forces and its president, charges that carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Those cases are pending before Venezuela’s high court.

Director Jakubowicz said: It’s really chilling that this is the message they are sending to our future artists. Because even if they haven’t banned the film, they’re engaging in a kind of indirect censorship. How will future Venezuelan artists feel about expressing their opinions when [authorities] want to put us in jail even though we never attacked them, or even spoke ill of them at any time?

The drug use and armed forces case has been filed by a private attorney in Venezuela, known for his participation in controversial government-related cases.

The other suit is a defamation case involving a former Chávez government official who appears briefly as part of news footage spliced into the movie’s menacing opening montage. The official, Rafael Cabrices, is shown firing a weapon from a bridge during a massive street demonstration in 2002 that led to the temporary ousting of Chávez.

The suit asks that Secuestro Express be removed from theaters until Jakubowicz deletes the scene with Cabrices. After the prosecution lost in lower courts, both cases are awaiting rulings on their legal merits from the higher court. Báez, the filmmaker’s lawyer, does not give them much chance of success. But if they prevail, it would open legal doors for banning the film and seeking prison time for the director, he said.