Silencing an opposing voice

Dan Grech May 8, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Rupert Murdoch’s deep-pocketed interest in the Journal aside, these are hardly boom times for many media outlets in this country. But at least they’ll always have the first amendment.

Later this month, the Venezuelan government is going to pull the broadcast license of that country’s oldest and most-watched television network. From the Marketplace Americas Desk at WLRN, Dan Grech reports RCTV finds itself on the wrong side of President Hugo Chavez.

DAN GRECH: President Hugo Chavez’s decision to pull the plug on RCTV has much to do with the events of April of 2002. That month, Chavez was temporarily ousted by a military coup.

The country’s four main TV networks broadcast massive anti-Chavez demonstrations that helped force him from office. But two days later, when Chavez supporters dramatically retook the presidential palace, all four major networks declined to cover it.

Instead of Chavez’s triumphant return, RCTV aired the film “Pretty Woman.”

JOHN DINGES: What RCTV did simply can’t be justified under any stretch of journalistic principles.

That’s Columbia journalism professor John Dinges. He says there are politically biased news networks all across Latin America.

DINGES: But when a television channel simply fails to report . . . simply goes off the air during a period of national crisis, not because they’re forced to, but simply because they don’t agree with what’s happening . . . you’ve lost your ability to defend what you do on journalistic principles.

Andres Izarra was a news manager at RCTV during the news blackout.He quit in protest, joined the Chavez administration and now is one of the channel’s fiercest critics.

ANDRES IZARRA: This is a violator of a public space. We think that such an irresponsible telecommunications operator should have been taken off the air many years ago.

After the 2002 coup, the four main networks continued to attack Chavez. He branded them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and he crafted new laws that made it easier to take them off the air. That’s led to widespread self-censorship.

Venevisión, the nation’s second-largest broadcaster, toned down its reports so much it’s now dismissively nicknamed the Disney Channel. RCTV took the opposite tack.

MIGUEL ANGEL RODRIGUEZ: Yo soy Miguel Angel Rodriguez, conductor del programa la Entrevista.

It launched “The Interview,” a hyper-critical morning show hosted by Miguel Angel Rodriguez.

RODRIGUEZ [voice of intrepreter]: We have always been an opposition channel. We oppose corruption, government inefficiency, injustice, fraud. That’s why we have had problems with every administration in the 53 years we have been on the air.

Teodoro Petkoff owns Tal Cual, a thin afternoon daily that’s been sued five times by the Chavez administration. Petkoff says he’s no fan of Venezuelan TV, whose powerful owners unduly influence news broadcasts. But he says with RCTV, a higher principle’s at stake.

TEODORO PETKOFF [voice of intrepreter]: This isn’t a debate about the quality of television, or its abuse by its owners, or the monopoly that two economic groups have over TV in Venezuela. We’re in the presence of a much larger power — that of the state suppressing a space for political opinion.

A multimillion-dollar enterprise hangs in the balance. RCTV employs 2,500 people, including 250 journalists. It draws 40 percent of Venezuela’s audience, and a similar share of advertising.

Columbia Professor John Dinges:

DINGES: It’s got state-of-the-art studios, tremendous production capacity, probably the biggest news staff in Venezuela in television. So my question is: What happens to that? Does that just go away?

When RCTV’s signal flickers off, Chavez says a national public service channel will take its place.

In Caracas, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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