The television station shut down by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is continuing to broadcast daily by moving its operation to YouTube. The Spanish news service EFE is reporting Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) is now airing its news program “El Observador” on YouTube. President Hugo Chavez had ordered RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest television station, to be shut down on 28 May.
El Observador’s YouTube edition has been covering the national student protests against the government’s decision. Meanwhile Caracol, RCTV’s affiliate station in Colombia is also broadcasting the El Observador newscast nightly on its international signal. 800,000 people in Venezuela will be able to continue watching the show in its midnight timeslot.
RCTV was Venezuela’s oldest and most popular television station. It had long been openly critical of the Chavez regime and an outlet for opposition parties. Chavez accused the station of supporting the failed 2002 coup against him and violating broadcast laws. He announced in January this year that his government would not renew the broadcast license for the station when it came up for renewal in May.
In 2002, RCTV was one of four opposition channels that called for protests to overthrow Chavez. When Chavez regained power after an abortive coup, RCTV and the opposition channels played regular programs instead of covering the political crisis. One of RCTV’s newsreaders quit the station for state-financed channel Telesur, saying he moved because he was disgusted with the way “everything was censored” against Chavez during the coup.
RCTV has been broadcasting in Venezuela for 53 years. It claims 40 per cent of the daily viewing audience with its diet of comedies, soap operas and game shows. In an opinion poll in April 70 per cent opposed the closure, 16 per cent approved and 13 per cent declined to answer. Those opposed were more upset about losing their favourite programmes than any erosion of freedom of speech.
RCTV’s top executive, Marcel Granier said Chavez’s decision is a turn toward totalitarianism. Granier accused Chavez of being "afraid of free thought, of opinion, of criticism." He claimed the closing of the station will affect "more than 200 journalists, 3,000 workers and the entire Venezuelan society”. His station’s supporters banged on pots and pans, blew whistles and played recordings of air raid sirens in protests that rang out in many Caracas neighbourhoods on the night the station was axed.
The station was taken off the air two days after the Chavez-controlled Supreme Court ruled RCTV's broadcasting equipment be made available to the state-funded channel that will replace it. It will join fellow state-run channel Venezolana de Television (VTV) and others. These stations show Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution as an unmitigated success. VTV’s news diet is reminiscent of the Soviet era with its vignettes of happy peasants, singing children and a nation grateful for subsidised food and free medical care. While it occasionally is critical of government officials, it never attacks the president.
Venezuela's four main independent TV networks (RCTV, Venevision, Globovision and Televen) are owned by high-profile businessmen who all opposed Chavez in the coup. Chavez described the four tycoons as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”. Two of these stations Venevision and Televen have toned down their criticism of the government in more recent times.
Gustavo Cisneros is the billionaire owner of Venevision TV and numerous joint ventures with multinationals such as Coca-Cola, has been dubbed the Rupert Murdoch of Latin America. In 2002 Chavez described as a "coup-plotter" and a "fascist". However Jimmy Carter helped broker a deal between the two men in 2004. Cisneros removed anti-Chavez news and commentary from Venevision.
With RCTV off the air, that leaves the 24-hour news station Globovision as the only genuine opposition voice in Venezuela. Globovision only reaches 10 per cent of the country’s TV audience. Nevertheless Chavez has now publicly threatened them and CNN claiming they were instigating a “vast destabilisation plan”. On 28 May Communication and information minister William Lara brought a complaint against Globovision accusing it of broadcasting content “inciting violence.” The complaint was that station broadcast footage of the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II at a time when Chavez was criticising Pope Benedict. Lara said this was tantamount to calling for the president’s assassination. The complaint is likely to be the first step in a strategy to eventually take it off the air entirely.
Chavez’s latest move to silence critics has lost him considerable sympathy among Western liberals. NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have all condemned the moves to silence RCTV and Globovision. The Venezuelan media is now looking dangerously lopsided. “This arbitrary decision thwarts Venezuelans’ right to seek and receive information and represents a setback for democracy in this country,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Not only has a dissenting voice been silenced but message has been sent to the media as a whole.”