Free media in Venezuela has suffered another blow, with RCTV removed from cable platforms. Daniel Duquenal reports
Last Saturday (23 January) at midnight precisely the Chavez administration ordered cable TV companies and Direct TV to take RCTV (and several other stations) off their grids. The companies had little choice but to abide. The motivation was a new regulation announced on December 22, essentially broadening the remit of the infamous “Ley RESORTE” —- a law that designates what and how terrestrial television networks can broadcast on air — to cover what is broadcast on cable networks. The excuse for the blocking was that RCTV had not transmitted a surprise cadena* on Saturday. The real reason is RCTV’s success on cable.
After it was originally banned from the air waves in 2007, RCTV reinvented itself as RCTV Internacional, on cable only. Since then it has had unexpected success, contributing to the recent boom in cable TV. In under three years cable penetration has grown from around 22 per cent to 37 per cent. And this without counting the extended illegal connections in a nearly lawless country that could well bring the total of Venezuelan homes connected to a cable provider above 50 per cent. RCTV has had 20 per cent audience share at times!
This has caused a problem for Chavez and his administration. Until now cable TV had been exempted from passing the odious cadenas. That has certainly contributed to the rise of the cable TV market in a relatively poor country where the cheapest cable subscription represents as much as 10 per cent of the minimum wage depending on the area. The Gramscian approach to information control that Chavismo embraces cannot tolerate ways to escape the official message, the more so when the flagship show of RCTV is the morning talk show of Miguel Angel Rodriguez, routinely excoriated in the pro-Chavez media for his investigation and criticism of the regime.
Besides any excuse for the closing of RCTV one could try to come up with, the truth is that Chavez is in trouble. 2009 ended with an acknowledged inflation rate of 27 per cent and a deep water and electricity crisises, requiring rationing. All due to lack of government planning more than to any climatological excuse. 2010 started with a brutal devaluation (100 per cent) which, in spite of a better exchange rate for abundant food imports, is likely to cause an inflation hike of 50 per cent for this year. If one adds the security crisis that makes Caracas one of the most dangerous capitals of the world and the recession that started in the middle of last year, one can understand why Chavez is so eager to restrict freedom of information.
There is really no excuse to close RCTV. The charges of conspiracy routinely repeated by Chavismo have never been proved, no journalist or RCTV director had been convicted or even stood trial. On open broadcast Chavismo controls everything except the 24 hour news channal Globovision, itself under threat, which only broadcasts in Caracas and Valencia (cable only elsewhere). The regime can’t pretend that Chavez’s message cannot reach the people. If it hasn’t reached them after 11 years it is either because they learned to use their remote control, or because they learned to turn off their TV during a cadena. Closing RCTV will not increase Chavez’s ratings, only those of the National Geographic channel. Or will this one also be required to pass Chavez cadenas? Let’s not forget that it is questionable that a government rules on what goes on cable TV besides the obvious morality clauses. A cable TV subscription is a private transaction and state interference can be seen as a breach of the right to privacy. RCTV has been put off air because it refuses to obey cadenas, but the Hustler channel remains in the grid, exempt of cadenas, because all the smut is produced overseas, while RCTV produces more than 30 per cent of its shows in Venezuela.
It may not be a coincidence that the blocking of RCTV came on 23 January, when the fall of the Venezuelan dictatorship in 1958 is commemorated. It seems that Chavez is itching for a confrontation to distract the country from the woes he has brought upon us. The brutal repression of a student protest against the closing of RCTV on Monday is a sign of things to come.
*A cadena is the power that the state has to commandeer simultaneously all airwaves, TV and radio, in Venezuela for as long as it wants, for as often as it wants. This legal provision was designed for such messages as the presidential state of the nation speeches or in case of national emergency. But under Chavez it has become a constant abuse, subjecting the country some weeks to several cadenas of several hours each, almost uniquely of Chavez speeches and propaganda. There is of course no right to reply on the state controlled networks.