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2007-05-31

Chavez Shuts Down Venezuelan TV Station as Supporters, Opponents Rally: A Debate on the Closing of RCTV

Guests

Andres Izarra, former news manager at RCTV. He served as Venezuela’s former communications minister under President Chavez. He is now president of TeleSUR, a multinational satellite network.

Francisco Rodríguez, assistant professor of economics and Latin American studies at Wesleyan University and former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly.

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Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Venezuela in four days of protests and counterprotests over the closing of TV network Radio Caracas Television. President Hugo Chavez decided not to renew the station’s TV license over its support for the coup that temporarily removed him from power five years ago. We host a debate on the issue. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Venezuela, thousands of people have taken to the streets in four days of protest and counterprotest over the closing of TV network Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV. The Venezuelan government decided not to renew RCTV’s television license earlier this year. Police, protesters and government supporters have clashed violently in Caracas since Sunday, and scores of people have been arrested.

President Hugo Chavez’s decision to close RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest private television network, has received international condemnation, including from the European Union, press freedom groups, Chile and the United States.

The Venezuelan government says it canceled RCTV over its support for the coup that briefly overthrew President Chavez five years ago. At the time, RCTV and other opposition TV channels openly supported the coup. In a national address on Monday, Chavez defended his decision to close RCTV, denouncing it as "a permanent attack on public morals." He also called news network Globovision an enemy of the state and criticized its coverage of the protest against RCTV’s closure.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: [translated] What Globovision did last night was an open and clear indication that they would kill me. Well, people of Globovision, I’m going to alert you in front of the country on the national chain of radio and television: I recommend that you take a tranquilizer, because, if not, I am going to do what is necessary.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Monday, Venezuela’s government announced it was suing Globovision for allegedly broadcasting material to incite a possible assassination of Chavez. It also accused U.S. news network CNN of linking him to al-Qaeda. Globovision and CNN have both denied the claims.

AMY GOODMAN: RCTV’s general manager, Marcel Granier, has described the closure as "abusive" and "arbitrary." The Venezuelan government refused to renew its license on the grounds it conspired against Chavez during the 2002 coup, including broadcasting footage falsely blaming Chavez supporters for violence, applauding coup leaders as they overthrew the government, and then refusing to report that Chavez had returned to power following mass protest.

In a moment, we’ll have a debate on this issue. But first, let’s turn to an excerpt of a documentary made by two filmmakers who were in Caracas during the 2002 coup. The film is called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

NARRATOR: One in four Venezuelans carry handguns, and soon some of the Chavez supporters began to shoot back in the direction the sniper fire seemed to be coming from.

ANDRES IZARRA: [translated] One of the channels had a camera opposite the palace. They captured images of people shooting from the bridge. It looks like they’re shooting at the opposition march below, but you can see they, themselves, are ducking. They are clearly being shot at, but the shots of them ducking were never shown. The Chavez supporters were blamed. The images were manipulated and shown over and over again to say that Chavez supporters had assassinated innocent marchers.

PRIVATE TV CHANNEL COVERAGE: [translated] Look at that Chavez supporter. Look at him empty his gun. That Chavez supporter has just fired on unarmed peaceful protesters below, peaceful protesters who are totally unarmed.

NARRATOR: What the TV stations didn’t broadcast was this camera angle, which clearly shows that the streets below were empty. The opposition march had never taken that route. With this manipulation, the deaths could now be blamed on Chavez.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain. That clip featured an interview with Andres Izarra, a news manager with RCTV during the 2002 coup. He later quit the station in protest over its coverage. After break, he will join us in debate with a Wesleyan professor over the closing of RCTV, the Wesleyan professor Francisco Rodriguez, professor of Latin American studies in Connecticut. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us from Caracas, Venezuela, is Andres Izarra, who quit RCTV, later served as Venezuela’s communications minister under President Chavez and is now president of TeleSUR, the multinational satellite network launched by Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and Cuba. And on the phone with us from Connecticut, Francisco Rodriguez, an assistant professor of economics and Latin American studies at Wesleyan University, former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Let’s begin with Andres Izarra in Venezuela. Why did President Chavez shut down RCTV?

ANDRES IZARRA: President Chavez hasn’t shut down any TV station. The concession has expired after 53 years, and the government decided not to renew the concession, because it needed to develop a national public service television. There is no shutdown at all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you talk a little bit about the time that you were news director at RCTV at the time of the coup and the reason for your initial resignation and your concerns about RCTV’s news coverage?

ANDRES IZARRA: RCTV, during the 2002 coup d’etat in Venezuela, was a factor aligned with the interests of the dictatorship that was installed in our country for 48 hours. It is no secret, not just with RCTV, but all the other private media, radio and television, were aligned in promoting the protests and the whole process that led to the incarceration of President Chavez during this brief period of time. And the censorship that was imposed on all of us journalists during those days in the effort of the private TV and radio stations to legitimize the dictatorship in Venezuela, it was a censorship that was imposed on us in an effort to try to legitimize this dictatorship. We could not broadcast any of the people’s reaction to the decree and to the dictator Carmona. And we could not cover anything that was happening in Venezuela, because instead of spreading the news of what was going on, the broadcast stations were broadcasting telenovelas, soap operas and cartoons.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to bring in Francisco Rodriguez, assistant professor at Wesleyan University, former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly. Your response to RCTV’s closing?

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Yes, well, I think that I am actually quite surprised that Mr. Izarra says that RCTV is not being closed down. It’s the nation’s oldest private TV station. It’s been operating since the '50s. It's the nation’s most widely viewed TV station. And it’s very clear that the government is going against it because it doesn’t follow the government line, it has a very much of a pro-opposition stance.

Now, the government, as Mr. Izarra said, has charged it with supporting the coup. Now, in a democracy, usually it is not sufficient for somebody to be accused of committing a crime in order for the government to be able to take action against them. In a democracy, when somebody is believed to have conspired against the government, they have the right to defend themselves in court. They’re taken to a court of law. And only after a court has said they are guilty is it that the executive power can actually take some measure against them. So, effectively, if Mr. Izarra or Mr. Chavez have proof that RCTV conspired against the government in the coup, well, why haven’t they taken it to court? No Venezuelan court has decided that RCTV has violated any law.

And it’s actually very striking that Mr. Izarra just said that all other private media also were not transmitting the story in a view — during the April 2002 coup, were not transmitting the views of the Chavez supporters. Now, that’s very interesting, and I think that that, by and large, is true. Now, what’s interesting is that some of those media, which Mr. Izarra has just said, were doing the same thing as RCTV, have just had their concessions renewed. So, for example, Venevision has just had its concession renewed. Why, if there’s no difference between what Venevision did and what RCTV did, is RCTV’s concession revoked and Venevision’s concession renewed? Well, the reason is that Venevision now has an editorial line which is very favorable to the government. Venezuelans joke at Venevision, calling it "Venezolana de Venevision," which is a play on words that makes its name almost indistinguishable from that of the government TV station.

So, effectively, what the government is doing is that it’s using licenses and it’s using a set of other economic means, such as foreign exchange allegations, blacklisting of government opponents — the government has published a list of 3.5 million people who signed the recall referendum against them, against the government, to intimidate them — and it’s using all of these means to try to quash out dissent in Venezuela. I think that’s what’s happening. And basically, I think we’re looking at the breakdown of democracy in Venezuela.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Professor Rodriquez, when you mention about how democracy functions, my understanding is that in Venezuela there really is no — and this predates the Chavez government — that there is really no process by which a television company can appeal the revocation of their license, that basically it is an executive decision of the government whether you have the privilege of holding a license, very similar to — at least here in the United States, there’s an FCC that fines stations quite often and can take away a license for failure to serve in the public interest, although clearly there’s a court procedure here in the United States, but that the Venezuelan legal system does not provide that kind of appeal process for television stations. Is that accurate?

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Sure, but there are a set of international agreements also, which have been signed by the Venezuelan government, which specify that these mechanisms, such as the renewal of licenses, such as the use of taxation or the allocation of foreign exchange, cannot be used in a way in which they are geared towards trying to change the opinion or the messages that are being transmitted by these TV stations. So they can’t be used to interfere with the freedom of speech.

So what is effectively and obviously happening here in Venezuela and is transparent in the declarations of Mr. Izarra and all of the government supporters is that RCTV is being punished for its editorial line. And there, we get into an issue where there’s a violation of the freedom of speech and where effectively the government is using its force not to regulate the broadcasting system, but actually to make it have an opinion and voice opinions which are favorable to it. And that, I think, is where we see the breakdown of democracy occurring.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mr. Izarra, your response to the position of the professor that you’re, in essence, punishing one network, whereas other networks also supposedly participated or supported the coup attempt?

ANDRES IZARRA: Well, I cannot speak on behalf of Venevision and where their editorial line is. I can only speak about TeleSUR. And we have been covering all sides of the events during all these days. Even the head of now the opposition, which is Globovision, the head of Globovision was on our air just yesterday exposing what their views were. I don’t know what Venevision is doing. I cannot speak on their behalf. But I can really say that this is a matter of sovereignty, and this is just an administrative procedure. In the past, we’ve seen in France, for example, the French government revoked the license for Berlusconi, when he was operating Tele 5, and gave it to another operator. Well, the same thing is happening here, just that in this case we’re not renewing a license.

There is no political — how do you say that? — punishment being imposed on RCTV because of their editorial line. In fact, 78 percent of the concessions in VHF in Venezuela are in private hands, most of them aligned with the opposition. Eighty-two percent of the concessions in the UHF spectrum are also in private hands, also most of them aligned with the opposition. So what we have here, again, is just an administrative procedure that is being used with political purpose to advance another coup d’etat. There’s another coup d’etat effort on the way in Venezuela, just like we had in the past.

I must remind you, the 64 days of oil sabotage that happened in our country, where the oil elite stopped oil production in Venezuela, supported by this private media. I must remind you that RCTV broadcast during 64 days thousands and thousands of TV spots, not commercials, only political messages, to take out of the government a legitimate and democratically elected government. If you have such an irresponsible operator doing what RCTV has been doing in our country for over five years, that license would be revoked immediately. If you have a private media being involved in the coup d’etat, like you had it happening in Venezuela, you would see, for sure, that channel taken off the air in the United States and its owners being put in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andres Izarra. He’s in Caracas, Venezuela, our first live national broadcast, video and audio, directly from Caracas. I apologize a bit for the sound. It sounds like there’s a bit of a rainstorm there, but it doesn’t look like that, though it looks maybe a little overcast. He is the president of TeleSUR. We’re also joined by Professor Rodriguez from Wesleyan University.

Andres Izarra, just looking at thestar.com, the latest piece out of Reuters, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calling opposition news channel Globovision an enemy of the state, saying he would do what’s needed to stop it from inciting violence only days after he shut another opposition broadcaster. It quotes Hugo Chavez saying that. Going on to say, "Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched in Caracas in a fourth consecutive day of protests over Chavez’s closure of [the] RCTV [network]." State TV "showed hundreds of government supporters marching in downtown Caracas celebrating Chavez’s decision. 'Enemies of the homeland, particularly those behind the scenes, I will give you a name: Globovision. Greetings, gentlemen of Globovision, you should watch where you are going,' Chavez said in a broadcast all channels had to show." He said, "'I recommend you take a tranquillizer and get into gear, because if not, I am going to do what is necessary.' He accused Globovision of trying to incite his assassination and of misreporting protests over the closure of RCTV that could whip up a situation similar to the coup attempt [against him] in 2002." Andres Izarra, your response to that Reuters report?

ANDRES IZARRA: Well, we have seen Globovision inciting the death of the president. I would like to see what would happen if NBC or CBS would broadcast what Globovision shows here, not just openly calling the people to rebel. In this very small opposition protest led by different, especially middle-class and upper-class students from private universities in Caracas and in the east of Caracas, which is the wealthiest part of the city, I would like to see how the FCC response would be for a broadcaster like Globovision that is constantly promoting rebellion and destabilization and has been supporting all anti-democratic processes and pronouncements here in Venezuela. The latest thing we’ve had is a clear, open call for the assassination of the president during one of their most vitriolic anti-Chavez shows called Alo Ciudadano.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Professor Rodriguez, I’d like to ask you, looking at it from our perspective here in this country, if some networks here in this country, NBC or ABC, fomented the kind of public opposition that RCTV or Globovision have against the current administration, do you think that the government would be justified in acting against them?

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think it’s very important to talk about exactly what it is that they’re doing. And as I — first of all, as I started out saying at the beginning, I think that there has to be a judicial review, there has to be presentation of the proof against these networks that shows that they have indeed fomented opposition.

Now, let’s talk about, Mr. Izarra just mentioned, openly calling for the overthrow of the government, Globovision, during the Alo Ciudadano program. Let’s see what they did. Globovision transmitted a set of images from the history of Venezuela and the world, basically which were — it was indeed a review, after more than 50 years of transmitting, what RCTV — all of the events that they had been present in. And one of the images — and this was in a set of different historical images that they presented — was an image of the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II. And according to Minister of Communications William Lara, a group of expert semioticians — I’m not joking; this was as it was reported in The New York Times — a group of expert semioticians working in the Ministry of Communications actually have identified that the transmission of the historical video of the assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II was indeed a call to carry out an assassination attempt against Mr. Chavez. Now, anybody who believes that in a profoundly Catholic country, such as Venezuela, you are going to actually incite people to go out and kill Mr. Chavez by presenting an image of an assassination attempt against the pope is certainly clearly out of their mind.

So this is the type of evidence that the government presents against Globovision, against Radio Caracas, and at the same time, you know, you have a set of other cases, where in the government TV stations you also routinely have — and the government-owned TV stations, are completely used to propagate pro-government messages, messages — you turn on the government TV station and you see pro-Chavez slogans being chanted all of the time, not effectively respecting the difference between the fact that this TV station is property of the state and not of the government. But definitely the government feels that it has the right to do that. So, essentially, I think that — you know, in answer to your question, I think that if a TV station were to actually call for the overthrow of the government and you can prove that in court, you would have a very strong case. It turns out that when the government has actually tried to prove these things in court, even the largely favorable supreme court, actually, ended up throwing out the government’s case against military command [inaudible] for open rebellion. So the government has really had a hard time. And when one sees the type of proof that they’re presenting, one is not surprised.

AMY GOODMAN: Andres Izarra, your final response?

ANDRES IZARRA: Oh, yeah. He’s absolutely right. It is hard to — in this country, oddest things had happened here. What was a clear coup d’etat — everyone recognizes internationally, domestically, everyone knew what happened in 2002 — our courts decided that it was not a coup. It was a power vacuum that was portrayed by military men who had good intentions and were protecting the president, never a coup d’etat happened in Venezuela. So Mr. Rodriguez is right. We have a very tough problem, very strong problem here with the courts, who have not even recognized that there had been a coup d’etat here in Venezuela.

But in terms of — Mr. Rodriguez is an economist, so these economists have a very linear way of thinking, you know. If you show the images of Pope John Paul II when he was — his assassination attempt — and you put a music saying, "Everything has its end. People, go look for the end," and in a context where you are reporting on all this vitriolic chants against the government and calls for to rebel against the government and denounce a dictatorship, that simple historic image gets a new context, and the message gets a very clear direction. You people, who are broadcasting, who are communications people, know very well how images can be manipulated and can be used to promote a sense and to promote a line of thought and feelings among the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Andres Izarra, we will have to leave it there. Andres Izarra speaking to us live from Caracas, Venezuela, manager at RCTV during the 2002 coup — he quit at the time — now president of TeleSUR, the multinational satellite network launched by Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and Cuba. Francisco Rodriguez, joining us from Wesleyan, assistant professor of economics and Latin American studies at the Connecticut school, he is former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly.

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