Sunday, December 31, 2006

What Venezuelans voted for: the end of freedom of expression

After a few days in the country side where not even cel phones could reach me, I come back today to Caracas to learn that Chavez has announced, in yet another ignoble and undignified speech (then Chavez never had much of self dignity in his speeches which look more like pre-brawl utterings rather than a chief of state policy setting announcement), that the oldest TV network will be closed. The excuse? The government will not renew an allegedly soon to expire license.

Now, I will not go into the legalities (or illegalities) of the matter: we all know what this is all about, revenge and control. Revenge against RCTV which has had an unflinching opposition attitude since Chavez reached office in 1998. Let’s revisit the history and the inconsistencies about this repressive measure (yes, let’s not be afraid of words and let’s call this Chavez announcement a repressive measure, yet a bid for more control).

What is wrong with your remote control?

The first thing that a foreign observer should know is that today the government has 4, FOUR, TV networks which are financed at tax payer expense and which almost exclusively broadcast propaganda of dubious quality (I know, it is almost an oxymoron) in favor of Chavez and his government. The opposition has very little voice there, as rarely a governmental talk show invites an opposition figure in a way that it can truly express.

In front of this barrage of propaganda today there are only two TV stations that can be qualified as opposition networks. Though it is a misnomer since government officials appear there more often, much more often in fact, than opposition figures in state TV. And to this one must add that the “gag law” mandates several minutes a day of free state propaganda from all private networks. Plus of course the MANDATORY SIMULTANEOUS broadcast at any time, of any length, that Chavez does when he sees it fit (the infamous “cadenas”). In other words: the government message goes abundantly through the so called “opposition” media, whereas the opposition message is 99% absent of the state media even though WE ALL PAY FOR IT.

The problem as far as chavismo is concerned is that in spite of all the propaganda, all the TV “cadenas”, all the accusations hurled at private media, people still tune to private media in much larger numbers than towards state media, in spite of a 63% electoral victory for Chavez. Is it a sabotage of people’s remote TV controls that render them unable to tune to the state media? No. Simply put chavista networks are boring, ill designed, simple minded, and only find a limited audience in the hard core chavismo. Soap operas and game shows unite both chavista and anti chavista alike, but in the non governmetal networks such as Venevision or RCTV. Is it the fault of the private media that in spite of all the money lavished on state media this one is simply UNABLE to produce anything interesting for the masses? Not even a decent game show? In fact a wit would point out that the only state media show with some rating is “alo presidente” where for hours Chavez entertains the crowds as Johnny Carson would have done if he had been president, except that he would have done it with more class and interesting guests, something that Chavez cannot bring himself to do as he like to hog the TV cameras and the rare guest is often a minister about to be publicly berated for his/her failures (which rarely cost her/his job anyway...but Chavez looks good while the fools applaud).

RCTV, the “golpista” network

I do not know whether RCTV is involved in conspiracy against Chavez. Or if RCTV was a main conspirator in April 2002. But if indeed RCTV was the hotbed of coup mongering in 2002, why wait for so long to close it? Why not have sent already to jail its owners and directors? The hypocrisy of the government argument is exposed cruelly in this unacountable delay.

Since Chavez is himself a “coup monger” who has killed much more people in 1992 than what RCTV has killed in 2002 (or ever for that matter) let’s try to remember the real reasons why Chavez hates so much RCTV.

First, of course, is that RCTV has been particularly skilled at exposing relentlessly the intellectual misery of those who hold power since 1998. It has done that very simply: with morning talk shows and with the late night news where the bulk of the news are the little people complaining of the governmental less than stellar response to their real needs. Chavismo quickly got tired to be shown every night that it was a mediocre to lousy administration.

But chavismo holds also a big grudge from that April 2002. One RCTV journalist, Andres Izarra, decided to declare that during the April events he was muzzled, he was not allowed to declare what was really going in the streets. Besides questioning whether Izarra actually knew of the reality of these days, which he has not been able to establish as far as this blogger knows, there were many other reasons for RCTV to black out news then. Valid or not, this is not the place to discuss these reasons. What is interesting is that Izarra, who was having a decent career at RCTV in spite of having chavista sympathies and of not being a bright star, decided to go publicly against his boss and got the rewards from the government. First a plum job at the Washington embassy. Then the ministry of communication. Unfortunately he revealed that one reason while he was let go by RCTV was that he was not a great professional: Chavez fired him quickly, though allowing him to direct Telesur, yet another vehicle for Chavez glorification. Izarra has amply demonstrated his grudge against RCTV and surely passed some of it to his boss, Chavez, who is always looking for excuses to trash private media.

The garbage at RCTV? Or its flashes of brilliance?

Then, there were other moments. One was the hearings early this year where Marcel Granier, one of the best minds in Venezuela, was convoked to defend himself at the National Assembly. Chavismo, then already a 100% affair at the Nation’s Capitol, was hoping to ridicule Granier to pave the way for an eventual RCTV suspension. Instead, the “best minds” of the Assembly sent to interrogate Granier demonstrated how mediocre they were, how ill equipped they were to dictate the laws of the country. It was one of the saddest experiences that chavismo had to withstand, a complete humiliation.

There is also Miguel Angel Rodriguez at his morning talk show sensation, La Entrevista. He has become the most hated journalist in chavismo, having whole hours of La Hojilla, the late night garbage of VTV, devoted on attacking him. And yet it was impossible to label Miguel Angel as a complete opposition journalist as he was always open to ANY chavista who dared to face his close and appropriate questioning who made many an opposition figure grimace when he ALSO exposed a few phonies in that camp. But see, chavismo cannot ever be exposed for the phonies they are. And of course, do not expect La Hojilla to have opposition guests. Besides it would be demeaning for anyone to set foot on that stage.

So the government tried other tacks, such as calling RCTV schedule garbage. Venezuelan television has generally been garbage, but a garbage that the masses follow. That is the first thing to note. Venevision, the other big private network is as much if not worse garbage as RCTV. But see, Cisneros, its owner, made a pact with Chavez and withdrew its talk shows and neutered the nightly news. The garbage of Venevision is now deemed to be kosher. But if we go onto garbage TV, what is shown on VTV has nothing to be envied by other networks, and if bad programming was a reason enough to close a network, there would be a strong case to close VTV first.

The real reason behind closing RCTV

RSF had it quite clear when earlier this month it tried to prevent this new madeness of Chavez:

In a press release, RSF said: "If RCTV's license is withdrawn because it is an opposition network, then it is clearly a violation of editorial diversity."

RCTV represents all that Chavez hates: intellect, old money, savoir faire, inquisitive journalism, sense for what rings true, at least some principles, democracy by allowing all to express even with some inequality in the amount of time granted in talk shows and news. RCTV might have a few defects too, but not any more than any other Venezuelan network. It is thus only a personal vendetta of Chavez against RCTV, just as he has against El Universal who like RCTV NEVER bought a line of chavismo, never considered Chavez an honest politician, only a power hungry uncouth soldier. And we know that Chavez is not forgiving.

But there is of course more to it. There is a faint, if trumped, case to be made against RCTV as a political opponent. After all RCTV was only too willing to promote the 2002-2003 strike. By trying to pin that political label on RCTV, wholly unjustified as VTV makes any other network pale by its obscene political engagement, Chavez is trying to find an excuse to start limiting first, and outright supressing later, freedom of expression in Venezuela. Because let no one be fooled, let no one think that this will stop there. After RCTV is closed there will come in roughly this order:

- the closing of Globovision.
- Attacks on the printed media which could start, for example, by blocking access to imported paper until eventually some trumped up trial with a complacent judicial system will allow for the closing of at least one newspaper, or its forced sale to financial pro Chavez group, cowing the other papers into "moderation".
- And since this will not stop opposition chavismo will have to look into ways to control cable TV, by putting at least cadenas across Discovery Channel shows.
- And editorial houses in Venezuela will be controlled at some point, as well as imported books and magazines (adding obscene taxes on imported print is an easy way while avoiding an outright censorship).
- And then there will be Internet. Until when for blogs such as this one to be closed, or their writers threatened and even arrested? A year? Three years?

It does not mater when and how the list above unfolds: if RCTV goes, then the others will follow sooner than later. It is in the dynamic of such regimes. They cannot help it, they cannot accept that others think differently. They cannot tolerate criticism of any kind. Read the previous post and you will see how this RCTV affair is related to the way the propaganda of chavismo is conducted.

For Chavez it is about controlling the last thing he has yet to control: the media, the thinking of those who still think in Venezuela.

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