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Chavez denounced for canceling TV license

The OAS says the president's decision to shut down Venezuela's oldest network appears to be censorship.

January 06, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's decision not to renew the license of his nation's largest and oldest television network, a frequent critic of his policies, drew a rebuke Friday from the Organization of American States.

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said in a statement that Chavez acted in an arbitrary manner in yanking the license of RCTV, which began operations in 1953 and has the largest viewership of any network in Venezuela.

"The closing of a mass communications outlet is a rare step in the history of our hemisphere and has no precedent in the recent decades of democracy," Insulza wrote, adding he hoped "this decision will be revised."

Chavez's "adoption of an administrative measure to close a news outlet gives the appearance of a form of censorship against freedom of expression and at the same time serves as a warning against other news organizations leading them to limit their actions at the risk of facing the same fate," Insulza said in the statement.

The OAS objection follows similar condemnations by news media freedom groups, including Reporters Without Borders and the Inter-American Press Assn.

Chavez announced the decision Dec. 28 at a military academy in Caracas, saying RCTV owners would have to "pack your bags, turn out the lights."

He accused the network of promoting the coup in April 2002 that briefly knocked him from power, and of committing unspecified ethical lapses. The Ministry of Communications and Information later specified that the license would not be renewed when it expired in May.

In a radio interview Thursday, Chavez, who was reelected last month in a landslide, said the decision was "irrevocable" and was made because RCTV "didn't pass the test to receive a renewal of a concession from a state that is serious, responsible, committed and respectful of the people."

RCTV General Manager Marcel Granier denied that his network had promoted the coup and merely covered it as a news event. He said in an interview that the network executives had not been presented with a formal notice or complaint that they could contest in court or at a public hearing.

"The only coup plotter is Chavez, who as everyone knows tried to overthrow the government in 1992, years before he was elected," Granier said. "We have a democratic tradition and we have been a model of that tradition.

"Not renewing our license is like President Bush one day announcing that NBC is going off the air because it was involved in a conspiracy against the United States," Granier said.

Orlando Ochoa, a risk analyst and economic consultant in Caracas, said that shutting down the nation's most popular TV network would "increase social polarization and destroy harmony at a time when Chavez has such a mandate to fight crime, inflation and eliminate corruption."

"Yes, RCTV had a critical attitude toward Chavez during the attempted coup more than four years ago, but so did all of the other big stations in Venezuela," Ochoa said. "The difference is that others have become more bland while RCTV maintains its attitude."

RCTV is a privately owned company whose largest shareholders are the Bottome and Phelps families. The network produces news and prime time programming, including 1,000 hours of telenovelas, or soap operas, each year. It owns 40 radio and television stations across Venezuela.

Granier said RCTV had "earned a place in Venezuelan society and we want to continue working as we have done." Asked whether the owners would sell if appeals failed, Granier said the market might be limited.

"Who is going to want to buy such a business in a country where there is a president in a military uniform saying which media can exist and which can't?" Granier said. "People want to invest in a country where there is rule of law."

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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