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Venezuelan leader moves to transform media

Emboldened by his sweeping re-election victory, Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez now seems intent on transforming that country's broadcast media.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bespectacled talk show host grimaces into the television camera, raises a finger and accuses President Hugo Chavez of using “tropical neo-fascism to trample Venezuelans’ rights.”

Sweat beads up above Miguel Angel Rodriguez’s eyebrows as he berates government officials, calling them liars and challenging them to prove their accusations that he is an “imperialist” pawn of the CIA.

Welcome to Radio Caracas Television, the channel Chavez loves to hate.

As he accelerates his push toward socialism, Chavez has decided that Venezuela’s oldest private TV station must go off the air for good when its broadcast license expires on May 28.

“Their days are numbered. Squeal, kick, whatever they do: the license of that fascist channel is gone,” Chavez said Saturday. “RCTV’s signal will be nationalized for Venezuelans.”

Emboldened by his sweeping re-election victory, Chavez now seems intent on transforming Venezuela’s broadcast media. An expanding web of state-run and state-financed radio and TV stations shapes his image. And almost every Sunday, he preaches socialist ideals on “Hello President,” his folksy talk-show program that runs for five hours or more.

RCTV, in contrast, has been a constant irritant to Chavez. Along with a cadre of other private TV channels and newspapers he accuses of spreading disinformation and conspiring against him, he says RCTV produces “poison” through “grotesque shows” that promote consumerism and violence.

Top RCTV executive Marcel Granier insists his channel has done nothing wrong and is being punished for criticizing the government as part of an “autocratic scheme.” He argues RCTV has the legal right to keep broadcasting until 2022, and plans to challenge Chavez in court.

RCTV has been one of Venezuela’s leading TV networks since 1953, broadcasting a mix of news, talk shows, sports, soap operas and its own version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

The weekly program “Radio Rochela,” which like “Saturday Night Live” often lampoons politicians, was a Venezuelan institution long before Chavez was first elected in 1998.

For now, the studios still bustle with giggling teenagers seeking autographs from soap stars and comedians practicing poking fun at Chavez for “Radio Rochela.” Another recent skit mocked Chavez’s mentor, Fidel Castro, with an impersonator dancing and rapping in olive-green fatigues, saying: “Give me more gasoline!”

But the mood has grown somber among RCTV’s 2,500 employees.

The station’s supporters call Chavez’s threat to deny RCTV a new license an example of how freedom of speech will be sacrificed in the “socialist republic of Venezuela” that Chavez proclaimed as he began his third term. Nearly 100 horn-honking cars snaked through Caracas Sunday in one protest caravan, with “Don’t Mess With The Media!” scrawled in white shoe polish across their windows.

The case also has drawn international attention, with statements of concern from the Organization of American States, the Roman Catholic Church, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Chavez says he fully respects freedom of speech, and that turning over the channel’s frequency to a “community” station will help democratize the airwaves, providing “communication power to those who almost never have a voice.”

Venezuela’s radio dial now includes hundreds of mostly state-financed and Chavez-friendly “community” stations, and three state-run TV channels have been launched since Chavez took office. They feature musicians singing songs about “El Comandante,” segments calling opposition leaders CIA agents and documentaries about Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Cuban-produced cartoons feature peasants who prevent invading soldiers from seizing a palm-dotted island.

Chavez also finances Telesur, the new Latin American network meant to provide a South American alternative to CNN. Telesur already claims 2.5 million cable viewers in 17 countries. The Venezuelan government holds a 51 percent stake, with smaller shares owned by Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Bolivia. Next up is Radiosur, an effort to share content with existing radio stations across the continent.

The move against RCTV won’t likely end Chavez’s efforts to rewrite the rules that govern Venezuela’s airwaves. Another frequent forum for opposition views is 24-hour all-news channel Globovision. Without elaborating, Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacon said authorities want to set up “a structure in which the media owner isn’t the owner of 24-hour messages, 365 days a year.”

RCTV, Globovision and two other channels are what Chavez has called the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” He has accused RCTV of one-sided coverage and said the channels effectively supported a 2002 failed coup by broadcasting cartoons and movies instead of the street protests that aided his return to power. Pro-Chavez mobs gathered outside RCTV and other stations during the coup, shouting insults and in some cases hurling rocks.

Two of those four channels have since toned down their criticism, while RCTV and Globovision have stayed their course despite sometimes-violent demonstrations. During pro-Chavez protests in 2004, an Associated Press reporter watched as a Chavez supporter fired shots at RCTV’s studios while others rammed an ice cream truck into the wall, then set the truck afire.