BOB GARFIELD: At midnight on Sunday, May 27th, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is yanking the license of Venezuela's oldest and most watched TV network – Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV.
President Chavez has offered a heap of reasons for taking it off the air. He says the station is pornographic, that it promotes coups, that it's a mouthpiece of the U.S. empire and instrument of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. When the Secretary General of the Organization of American States criticized the move, as, quote, "a form of censorship," Chavez called him an idiot.
Dan Grech, a reporter for American Public Media's Marketplace, brings us the story. DAN GRECH: Every weekday morning, RCTV airs the news program La Entrevista, or The Interview. And every weekday morning the show savages the Chavez administration – for corruption, for cronyism, for incompetence. [SPANISH] DAN GRECH: Miguel Angel Rodriguez hosts the show. [MIGUEL ANGEL RODRIGUEZ SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
[INTERPRETER]: For those who are disgusted by liberty of expression, by popular protests, by accusations of corruption and injustice and discrimination, my show will make them uncomfortable. [MIGUEL ANGEL RODRIGUEZ SPEAKS IN SPANISH] DAN GRECH: The combative tone of Rodriguez's show goes a long way to explain why RCTV is losing its license.
Venezuela has four main private TV networks. They were so critical of President Chavez early on, he dubbed them "the four horsemen of the apocalypse." He passed a media law in 2004 that makes it easier to take broadcasters off the air, and he changed the penal code in 2005 to mandate prison sentences for anyone who disrespects the President of the Republic.
Though nobody's been thrown in jail and no other outlets have been shut down, several stations have begun censoring themselves. The country's second-most-watched network, Venevision, has gone so soft it's been nicknamed "the Disney channel." RCTV took the opposite approach. It unleashed La Entrevista. [MIGUEL ANGEL RODRIGUEZ SPEAKS IN SPANISH] [INTERPRETING]: I have many arguments, and not just discursive ones, but physical proof that this administration has violated the principles of democracy. ANDRE IZARRA: RCTV is not opposition. RCTV is a destabilizing operation. RCTV is a violator of all basic rules of responsible broadcasting. DAN GRECH: That's Andre Izarra, Venezuela's former communications minister, who now operates TeleSUR, a 24-hour news network started by Chavez. Izarra is one of RCTV's most compelling critics. That's because he worked as a news manager at the station before quitting in protest over its biased coverage. Izarra's jabs against RCTV land with devastating force. ANDRE IZARRA: This is a station that has broadcast 64 days of publicity, of propaganda, to try to topple a democratically elected government. Sixty-four days during the oil sabotage. DAN GRECH: He's referring to a two-month general strike organized by Chavez's opposition in 2002. RCTV ran public service announcements that, among other things, encouraged people to stop paying taxes. ANDRE IZARRA: Just imagine what would happen in the United States if NBC would run 64 days of ads against the government of the United States in an effort to topple it. I would ask myself what would happen if the time would come for that concession to be renewed if the FCC would do it. DAN GRECH: The government's most seriously allegation against RCTV dates back to April, 2002, when a military coup briefly ousted President Chavez. Media owners, including RCTV's Marcel Granier, met with interim president Pedro Carmona. The owners reportedly promised to back the new military regime, even as its popular support crumbled.
When Chavez loyalists retook the presidential palace, no major private network reported it. During one of the most important moments in Venezuelan history, RCTV aired the film Pretty Woman. JOHN DINGES: They bear responsibility to a great extent for what has happened to them. That doesn't justify closing down a television channel. DAN GRECH: That's Columbia Journalism Professor John Dinges. JOHN DINGES: But they put themselves in a position where they could not defend their integrity using journalistic principles. Freedom of the press is something that always has to be defended, and you have to defend freedom of the press based on your service to democracy. DAN GRECH: After the coup, President Chavez realized he needed to create his own state-run media system to compete with the private one. His government now controls three national TV stations, eight radio broadcasters, a state news agency, an international news channel, a daily newspaper, a cultural magazine, and it's launching a communications satellite next year. These outlets all run pro-government news and ads.
Chavez has also pumped money into 146 low-power community radio stations, 72 community newspapers and dozens of websites.
Meanwhile, private media outlets are under siege. Twenty-five hundred RCTV employees could lose their jobs. [AMBIENT SOUND: LUNCHROOM] In the station's lunchroom their mood alternates between somber and defiant. ANDRES MENDOZA: We're staying until the ship sinks. DAN GRECH: Andres Mendoza is an international news producer. ANDRES MENDOZA: It's solidarity with the TV station, but also, hey, it's a big historic moment because this is something that has never happened in our country, that a president decides to ban a station and 2,500 employees from working. DAN GRECH: RCTV's employees aren't the only ones at risk. The network produces telenovelas that have been exported to more than 80 countries, and its academy trains thousands of actors, journalists and technicians every year. No one knows if these side businesses will survive when RCTV is taken off the air.
Standing like a referee in the middle of this dispute is Teodoro Petkoff, editor of Tal Cual, a respected afternoon daily. Petkoff's a former Communist guerilla fighter, but, like RCTV, his paper's a Chavez target. It faces five government lawsuits for breaking the new media laws.
Lawsuits notwithstanding, he thinks Chavez does have a point, at least when it comes to private networks like RCTV. Petkoff says during the early years of the Chavez government, the stations served as mouthpieces for their wealthy owners. [TEODORO PETKOFF SPEAKS IN SPANISH] INTERPRETER: They begin to act like political parties. They compromise themselves during the confrontations with the government. They committed gross errors. [TEODORO PETKOFF SPEAKS IN SPANISH] DAN GRECH: He's so critical of their coverage, private network news shows will often bar him from their programs. This makes Petkoff's vocal defense of RCTV all the more compelling. [TEODORO PETKOFF SPEAKS IN SPANISH] INTERPRETER: Today I'm living a paradox. I was victim of the inadequate procedures of some television channels. Now I protest the closure of RCTV. DAN GRECH: Chavez was reelected President in a landslide in December. Petkoff says Chavez is using this new mandate to send a message to his opponents in the media. Tone down your coverage, or else. [TEODORO PETKOFF SPEAKS IN SPANISH] INTERPRETER: Obviously I know that I'm at risk, and I fear that my right as a Venezuelan citizen to disagree with my government is being threatened. [TEODORO PETKOFF SPEAKS IN SPANISH] DAN GRECH: Petkoff's not sure how long he'll last after RCTV's signal turns to snow. For On the Media, I'm Dan Grech. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, baseball's unlovable heavy hitter, and The Little Mosque on the Prairie. This is On the Media from NPR.