Monday, June 11, 2007

For weeks ahead of taking Venezuela’s oldest and most widely watched television station off the air, President Hugo Chavez and his regime maintained the fiction that the move was nothing more than a regulatory matter. A broadcasting license was up for renewal, and in this particular case, the broadcaster had all too often violated regulations protecting Venezuelan viewers from indecency and violent programming. Or as Venezuela’s envoy to Spain said of Radio Caracas Television, the “licensee did not behave, and therefore the agreement was not renewed.”

But once RCTV was off the air, it didn’t take long for the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez to lift the veil, threatening to shut down any media outlet that displeases him. “I am going to go after those resisting the revolution,” Mr. Chavez announced, “and eliminate them one by one.” What counts as resistance? Anything other than fawning coverage of his “revolution” is deemed to be a threat against Venezuela and against Mr. Chavez personally. For the chavistas, the president is the government of Venezuela, and any opposition to him is an attack on the nation. Mr. Chavez aggressively promotes the notion that he and the state are inseparable, as when he sneered this weekend that “Separation of powers and alternation of powers is a device of bourgeois democracy.”

Globovision, a small cable TV network, has been one of the only Venezuelan media outlets willing to cover the student protests sparked by the closure of RCTV. Mr. Chavez denounced the network as “enemies of the motherland,” and taunted: “Greetings, Globovision, you will see where you will go.” Mr. Chavez isn’t known for the subtlety of his threats. “I am warning you in front of the country,” el Presidente declared at a rally. “I recommend they take a tranquilizer and cool down, because if not, I will take care of Globovision myself.”

Undeterred, the network has kept up its coverage, showing abundant footage of students, their hands painted white and held high to clearly show that they are unarmed, tear-gassed, clubbed by the government’s riot thugs and blasted with water cannons. CNN kept up its coverage too. Mr. Chavez’ regime responded by accusing Globovision and CNN both of trying to incite the assassination of the president. In Venezuela, even the most basic sort of media coverage gets labeled terrorism, and is treated as such. “I can take away the concession of any media outlet that practices media terrorism,” Mr. Chavez proclaimed. No wonder nearly every other broadcaster in the country has gone into a defensive crouch of self-censorship.

Venezuela’s regime could not be more clear about its ambition to silence dissent. And finally the United States is speaking bluntly too. At a meeting of the Organization of American States in Panama City, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke out against the closing of RCTV, calling freedom of speech “the beginning of justice in every society.” Miss Rice said: “Everyone recognizes that when you start closing down television stations because they express opposition to the leadership, that that is, in fact, a strong move against democracy.” That threat to democracy extends well beyond Venezuela’s borders.

Emboldened — and financed — by Venezuela, rulers in Ecuador and Bolivia are moving to crush media that make room for dissenting voices. “The main adversaries of my presidency, of my government,” said Bolivia’s Evo Morales, “are certain communications media.” When Mr. Morales made this statement, Venezuela had just put the padlock on RCTV, so it is clear what he had in mind when he said he would “draw on the experience of our friends in Venezuela and Cuba.”

Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa announced a Chavez-like initiative to review media “concessions.” Venezuela’s college students are bravely risking their futures, even their lives, by publicly protesting Hugo Chavez and the authoritarian juggernaut his regime has become. We can and should do more to support their cause. We broadcasters can make a simple gesture of solidarity with them by tying black ribbons on our microphones, or wearing black ribbons on our lapels, especially on June 27, which is Journalists’ Day in Venezuela. But it’s not enough to dress ourselves in crepe, mourning the death of free speech under the Chavez regime. There are more important gestures of solidarity to be made. First among them is to keep the issue of freedom in Venezuela alive by not allowing Mr. Chavez’ fait accompli to be accepted as old news. In other words, we need to exercise our free speech in defense of free speech in Venezuela, and anywhere it is under assault.

Blanquita Cullum is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and is chairman of the Talkers First Amendment Committee.

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