The Venezuelan muzzler

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Venezuela’s largest opposition television station was closed at midnight on Sunday, ending 53 years of broadcasts and signaling a tremendous blow to freedom in the country. The popular Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) has been a target of Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian president for the past five years, and in January Hugo Chavez proclaimed that the station’s broadcast license would not be renewed. Mr. Chavez made sweeping allegations against the station, including accusations that it was plotting to overthrow his government. But behind his spurious claims Mr. Chavez’s rationale was clearly political: His model of “21st century socialism,” as he has taken to calling it, has no tolerance for dissenting voices. Two of his political allies, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, are following suit.

The move against the station was met with protests in Venezuela, and widespread criticism from abroad — all for good reason. In the absence of a free and robust media, democracy withers and authoritarian rule flourishes. This lesson is plain in repressive regimes across the globe and throughout history.

In the few days since RCTV was shut down, Mr. Chavez’s vision for new coverage in Venezuela has been unmistakable. As protesters were taking to the streets to protest the closing of RCTV, police fired tear gas and used water cannons in an attempt to clear the crowds. But among Venezuelan television stations, only one — Globovision, which is much smaller than RCTV and isn’t available throughout Venezuela — was broadcasting coverage of the events. Others had canned programs like soap operas and, on TVES, Mr. Chavez’s state-sponsored replacement for RCTV, the cartoon Pinocchio, instead.

Mr. Chavez quickly denounced Globovision’s decision to cover the protests and went on the offensive, calling the station an enemy of the homeland and charging it with plotting to kill him. The pro-Chavez tabloid Diario VEA published an article Tuesday under the headline “Globovision and CNN incite assassination,” but to any objective observer the claim is obviously specious. Like RCTV, however, Globovision is an opposition news channel with an anti-Chavez editorial line, which is one explanation for why the Venezuelan leader is going after the station voices of dissent.

The other explanation is that Mr. Chavez stirred up more vigorous opposition than he anticipated by closing RCTV, forcing himself into a position of either stepping up his control of Venezuela’s media or backing down. It’s clear that Mr. Chavez sees the latter as incompatible with his vision for Venezuela. As his plans become clearer, the more Mr. Chavez’s so-called 21st century socialism resembles the destructive, oppressive and authoritarian socialist regimes of the 20th century.

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