CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made moves to tighten government control over national media, say critics who warn that the Internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter could be his next target.
Chavez recently announced that the government would review the licenses of and possibly close as many as 240 radio stations -- more than one-third of all AM and FM broadcasters. He has proposed rules that would limit the sharing of programming by stations, something that helps many stay economically viable.
Critics say it's a means of forcing independent station owners to sell out or go off the air, thereby shifting airwave dominance to Community Radio, the pro-government chain founded by Chavez. Since 2001, the government chain has grown to 238 local stations, which aren't included in the current review.
"If we recover I don't know how many stations, it won't be to give them back to the bourgeoisie. No, no. We have to create popular radio for the people," Chavez told a university audience Tuesday in Caracas, the capital.
Chavez has said the moves are part of his socialist plan of shifting media "hegemony" away from private ownership and to the people.
But critics say the license review and other measures taken by Chavez in recent weeks are designed to quash dissenting views. Two years ago, Chavez refused to renew the license of the nation's most popular TV network, RCTV, which broadcast commentary critical of Chavez's leftist policies.
Alfredo Keller, head of a Caracas polling firm, believes the actions are Chavez's response to a decline in his popularity, which hit a five-year low in May, according to Keller's quarterly poll. The decline has shaken Chavez because elections for the National Assembly are scheduled next year, he said.
Other ominous signs for free-speech advocates include legislation that Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz will present to the National Assembly soon that would create a new category of "media crime," punishing those who broadcast or print opinion instead of fact.
"What I wonder is, who will define the crime and based on what criteria?" said Marcelino Bisbal, a professor at Central University of Venezuela and editor of Communication magazine. "The arbitrary way such a law could be applied is very worrisome."
Another proposal that critics say would limit freedom of expression is legislation being pitched by Cabinet Minister Diosdado Cabello that would channel all Internet communication through servers controlled by the state telecommunications company, CANTV.
Cabello has said the measure would enable the government to suspend all telecommunications for security reasons in times of national emergency. But Bisbal and Keller believe it's designed to control social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as rallying points for the opposition.
"I'm convinced that what's behind this is the preparation of legal terrain for a mechanism by which the government could cut or control all social communication," Keller said.
Chavez critics fear that he is now targeting another opposition TV broadcaster for closure: Globovision, which recently broadcast an expose alleging widespread corruption during Cabello's term as governor of Miranda state.
A judge recently issued an order prohibiting Globovision owner Guillermo Zuloaga from leaving the country. The government says Zuloaga is a flight risk while he is being investigated for "hoarding automobiles" through a Toyota dealership he owns, but free-speech advocates say it is simple harassment.
"Threats to the media are nothing new, but they have become an avalanche," said Rafael Chavero, a constitutional law professor in Caracas.
"It's no coincidence the government opened a legal case against Globovision after the station denounced Cabello," he said.
The government is also going after cable programmers, who are grabbing an increasing share of the Venezuelan audience, Bisbal said.
To control the networks, Chavez is proposing to require the cable channels to run an hour of government programming per day.
After losing its broadcast license in May 2007, RCTV shifted to cable programming.
Director Marcel Granier says the government continues to harass his station with frequent inspections and fines.
Granier said his home was the target of two tear-gas bombings in January, but even though he reported the serial numbers of the canisters, which were taken from an armed forces arsenal, no suspects have been charged.