By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Any doubts that the government was determined to crack the whip and gain the upper hand in its war with the more independently-minded private media were dispelled by an abrupt order from Infrastructure and Housing Minister Diosdado Cabello on Friday evening.
Cabello announced that 34 broadcasting stations, mainly radio but also a few television transmission centers, were to be shut down because President Hugo Chávez’s government was revoking their licences.
At the breakfast hour the following day, the stations went off the air amid a widespread assumption that they’d never be heard from again – or at least as long as El Comandante (as friend and foe alike refer to him, albeit from very different perspectives) is in residence at the presidential palace, Miraflores.
Cabello controls the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), which had sent out the necessary notices of closure following his announcement. The stations duly went off the air, most of them playing the national anthem as they saw themselves out.
Some stations announced that they would continue on the Internet, which the government is likely to find much more difficult to control. That said, the number of households equipped with computers and access to the Internet in Venezuela is relatively small – and more or less non-existent among the poorer classes who make up the ballast of Chávez’s power base.
The president of the National College of Journalists, William Echeverria, said that broadcasters could continue if they adopted a creative approach. “Here, they can close a radio transmitter but they can’t close down a different way of thinking,” he declared. “Who is the Venezuelan state to determine which radio station one should listen to?”
Cabello’s order had a partial effect on Globovisión, the privately-owned 24-hour news station which has long been at odds with the Chávez regime, and as such, has become the target of increasingly hostile actions on behalf of by the government. Chávez himself has openly threatened to close the channel, but so far has yet to do so.
Globovisión President Guillermo Zuloaga, who faces trial on charges including “generic usury” after a raid in which a fleet of cars was found at a residence he owns in east Caracas, said the government was “trying to shut up information.”
Zuloaga went on to suggest that Cabello’s measure was not in accordance with the Bolivarian Constitution adopted by referendum at Chávez’s behest in 1999, and he warned that closing down broadcasters and other steps taken by the government wouldn’t work in the end.
“Sooner or later, all these acts will be punished in one way or another,” Zuloaga said. “If this is a government with popular support, why are they trying to shut down the news instead of promoting it?”
Beatriz Adrían, a journalist at Globovisión, said five of the channel’s transmission stations had been affected by Conatel’s instruction, which had been delivered that morning. Information was being distorted from day to day, she said, calling on the citizenry to make its feelings known.
A few hours after the stations had shut, the National College of Journalists duly issued a statement calling on the people to protest against the government’s “despotic decision.” But the journalists were already a bit behind the curve on this story.
Not long after midnight Friday, reports coming into the capital spoke of sporadic, small-scale protests in the states of Zulia and Mérida, and a gathering outside CNB, a radio station in a middle class district of the capital. Some people in Chuao banged saucepans.
Unsurprisingly, it was journalists and broadcasters who held center stage during the early protests. Radio veteran Raiza Instúriz de Belfort took a particularly gloomy view.
“We’re in a dictatorship, they’re shutting us up,” she declared. “The future is pretty Black. I think freedom of expression already isn’t going to exist.” And then she added: “We will continue defending Venezuelan democracy as we have up to this moment.”
There was a poignant moment from Laura Castellanos, a journalist who said it was the second time her media workplace had been closed by the government. She once worked for Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), a private channel whose licence was abruptly revoked by Chávez in 2007.
“I’ve got two children,” she said. “What do I do now? They already shut RCTV, and now CNB. As you have to look for food, so do we and every time they shut the door to us.”
Opposition leaders got into the act on Saturday morning. Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma – who’s had more than his fair share of trouble at the hands of the government since he won office by ousting the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) at the elections last November – said the closure order showed that the president was fearful of freedom of expression.
Instead, Ledezma continued, what the government should be doing was attending to serious issues such as problems in the state health system. Closing down broadcasters wasn’t going to stop the Venezuelans from “commenting about the disgrace” at maternity clinics, he said.
The liberal conservative party, Primero Justicia, picked up this last point, calling on the government to “dedicate its time to improving the quality of life of the Venezuelans,” claiming that the closure would affect all the people.
Carlos Melo, a former oil industry employee who was sacked for his role in the two-month strike orchestrated by the Opposition against Chávez around the turn of 2002-03, condemned the enforced shut-down as a “dictatorial, anti-democratic process.”
Andrés Velásquez of Causa R, a small leftist party that once briefly sided with Chávez, went more than one step further. He called Cabello’s move “an act of fascism.”
Opposition Mayor Gerardo Blyde of the Baruta municipality in the south of the city laid into what he called “a certain blow against freedom of expression.” He pointed to the coincidence between the timing of the closure order and the hurried passage of the Media Crimes Law through a second debate on Friday.
The Radio Broadcasting Chamber questioned the procedure used to close down the stations. This had consisted solely of an order from Cabello, and as this left no right to defense it violated the law, the chamber argued.
International human rights organizations were also appalled. "What we are witnessing is the most comprehensive assault on free speech in Venezuela since Chavez came to power," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in the region that shows such flagrant disregard for universal standards of freedom of expression."
A polling company did a snap survey and claimed that 84% of its sample had been against shutting down broadcasters. Within the total, it added, 67% of the president’s own supporters or chavistas felt the same way.