By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – President Hugo Chávez set off an entirely predictable storm of protest by ordering action to be taken against media he claimed were out to “subvert and destabilize” the country.
In a lengthy speech late Tuesday, he claimed that the media in question – which he didn’t name – had “taken part” in the crisis which briefly removed him from office in April 2002. “Nobody had touched a hair” of these organizations, he complained, clearly meaning this was not to happen again.
"We must not allow this. That is why April 11 happened, because the TV stations were allowed to do what they did, were allowed a group of people to call the military to uprise," said Chavez.
The investigation to establish responsibilities and impose punishment for trying to undermine the state, both then and now, was continuing, Chávez said. There were not going to be any deals with those who opposed his regime.
“There will not be an accord with the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie,” he continued. “We must continue the offensive, stamping out the counter-revolution.”
Chávez is deemed to have upped the ante on the seventh anniversary of the worst political upheaval during his 10 years in power. This comes at a time when his government is under question for hostility aimed at leading opposition figures such as Maracaibo Mayor Manuel Rosales – who’s on trial for corruption but whom an unconfirmed report Tuesday claimed had gotten out of the country – and Caracas Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma.
The reaction to the president’s statement about the media wasn’t long in coming. At a conference on Mexico City, Ramón José Medina, an advisor at the Press and Society Institute, warned of the peril to private broadcasters posed by tax demands and penalties imposed under the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, a highly controversial piece of legislation Chavez pushed through a few years back.
Medina, a former parliamentarian, said that Conatel had launched two “punishable administrative procedures” against Globovisión in 2008. These, he claimed, could lead to the station being closed down.
Chávez earlier this decade refused to renew the broadcasting license that Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) had held for around 35 years. The move was roundly condemned both at home – RCTV was a prime transmitter of highly popular soap operas – and abroad. The channel is still available, but only in much diminished form on cable or by satellite.
Chávez has threatened to extend the powers enshrined in the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which at present apply only to terrestrial broadcasters, to cable networks and other outlets. Unsurprisingly, this has been seen as another incursion into freedom of speech.
Officials insist that the authorities have a duty to ensure “decency” in broadcasting standards. That said, at times steamy soaps still go out in prime time when minors might be expected to be watching, and perhaps paying all the more attention for that.
Oscar Pérez, a leading member of Ledezma’s party, Alianza Bravo Pueblo, vowed to defend freedom of expression with street protests and appeals to international organizations. Chávez, he claimed, was out to “accelerate the political crisis in the face of the imminent social and economic situation” that was looming.
This, Pérez argued, would be followed by attempts to “foist responsibilities upon the media of communication and political and democratic sectors of the country that are against the government’s hegemonic project.”
Román Duque Corredor, a former judge, said it was the president who was subverting order by labeling as conspirators people who criticized “unconstitutionality and illegality”. As far as he was concerned, the separation and independence of the powers didn’t exist in Venezuela.
Former Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez leapt to the president’s defense. He said any media organization that “assumed a political role” had to be investigated. His conclusion was that the president had “expressed his preoccupation” but “at no time had there appeared to be instructions.”
For Antonio Molina, a lawyer who represents relatives of some of the victims of the turmoil in 2002, now that three former Metropolitan Police commissioners had been convicted in connection with the deaths of three people then, it was time to track down and punish the “intellectual authors” or instigators of the upheaval.
The commissioners, who were jailed for the maximum 30 years last week, and their subordinates, who mainly received lesser but still stiff sentences, were not the only ones responsible for what had happened, Molina said. He, too, was out to get the media.
The media, he claimed, had played a “fundamental role as allies of those who executed the coup d’etat.” He said that at the middle of the three-day crisis, it had been publicly stated that the coup wouldn’t have taken place without the “participation” of the media.
On April 11, 2002, seventeen people were killed when shooting broke out as an opposition march up Avenida Baralt in downtown Caracas neared the Puente Llaguno, which lies barely a block away from the presidential palace, Miraflores. Two more people later succumbed to their wounds and scores were injured.
In a separate development, the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) ruled that there was no case for imposing an injunction against Globovisión, a private sector channel that makes no secret of its dislike for the president and all he stands for, for supposedly taking part in what the government still sees as an attempt to overthrow Chávez.
Carmen Alicia Romero and José Gregorio Romero had sought an injunction, arguing that in 2002 Globovisión had participated in plans to assassinate the president. They cited statements at the time by Patricia Poleo, a journalist of strongly anti-Chávez views who lives in exile, to support their case, but the Constitutional Chamber headed by TSJ President Luisa Estela Morales didn’t agree.
Earlier, Ana Cristina Nuñez, counsel for Globovisión, had responded to Chávez’ order by saying the channel was ready to defend itself. “At Globovisión, we’re ready to confront whatever trial, be it unjust or unconstitutional,” she said. “What’s happening today is that the president is completely criminalizing the free exercise of liberty of expression. What would be natural would be for the judicial power to explain that it is it which determines who’s guilty.”
It wasn’t just that the president issued orders, Nuñez continued, but that the National Telecommunications Commission, Conatel, followed them. Conatel has in the past raided Globovisión headquarters in Caracas, taking away broadcasting equipment which the station claims was never returned.